Separation of Church and State 3

The great idea of individual freedom is what the Founders of the USA intended the new nation to embody – not Christianity.

We have selected passages on this theme from an article by Rob Boston in Church and State, denying “10 myths” about the First Amendment and its implications:

Myth One: Separation of church and state isn’t found in the U.S. Constitution.

Separation of church and state came about in America because during the colonial period there often was no separation, and this violated fundamental liberties. The system the Religious Right favors – church-state union – was tried in many colonies and found wanting.

Throughout the article, the author ascribes the myths exclusively to the “Religious Right”. In our experience, Christians of both Right and Left repeat these same fallacies.

Virginia led the way. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison worked together to disestablish the Anglican Church and pass legislation that extended true religious freedom to all. Some years later, it was Jefferson who penned the metaphor of the First Amendment erecting a “wall of separation between church and state”. Jefferson’s metaphor resonated with the public and the courts. Thus, the phrase “separation of church and state” came into being as a short-hand way of describing the First Amendment’s religion clauses. As the eminent church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer once wrote, “[I]t was inevitable that some convenient term should come into existence to verbalize a principle so widely held by the American people.”

Key Founders backed the concept. Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution” and a primary drafter of the Bill of Rights, used similar language. In Virginia, Madison noted that he and Jefferson had created the “total separation of the church from the state”. As president, Madison was a strict advocate of this principle. He vetoed legislation that would have given a church in Washington, D.C., a symbolic charter to care for the poor, and he vetoed legislation giving a federal land grant to a church. In both cases, Madison issued veto messages citing the First Amendment.

Myth Two: The United States was founded to be a Christian nation.

This claim is easily debunked by referring to the text of the U.S. Constitution. If an officially Christian nation had been the Founders’ intent, the Constitution would say that explicitly. It doesn’t. In fact, it says the opposite.

Religion is referred to twice in the Constitution. The First Amendment bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion” and prohibiting “the free exercise thereof.” The first portion of this statement, which scholars call the Establishment Clause, cuts strongly against the notion of an officially Christian nation.

The second reference is often overlooked but is very important. Article VI contains language stating that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” What the Founders did here was ban religious qualifications for federal office – that is, they made it illegal to require that a person hold certain religious beliefs as a qualification for public office. Article VI ensures that all people – Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, etc. – can hold office at the federal level. It is impossible to square this language with the “Christian nation” concept.

Many conservative pastors of the post-Revolution era were well aware of the secular nature of the Constitution. They knew that the document did not establish an officially Christian nation. This angered them and led to a round of pulpit attacks on the “godless” Constitution.

Myth Three: Separation of church and state was originally intended to merely bar the creation of a national church.

The text of the First Amendment goes way beyond simply banning a national church. The amendment prohibits all laws “respecting an establishment of religion”. James Madison, one of the chief drafters of the amendment, interpreted it broadly. Madison believed that tax funding of churches was unconstitutional and even concluded, later in his life, that official White House proclamations calling for days of prayer were a violation.

It is true that some colonies had official churches. But it’s worth noting that the religion enshrined in law varied from colony to colony. … This “multiplicity of sects,” as Thomas Jefferson called it, ensured an effective check on an officially established national church.

Myth Four: Most of the Founders were evangelical Christians and supported government promulgation of that mode of faith.

Evangelicalism did take hold in the colonies in the post-Revolutionary era, but it was never embraced by key Founders. Rather, they tended to align with a rival school that sought to merge certain ethical principles of Christianity with the tenets of the Enlightenment, which stressed the primacy of science and reason.

Many Founders are identified as Deists, a theological school of thought that is less popular today. Deists believed in God but didn’t interpret the Bible in a literal fashion. They were skeptical of miraculous claims and sought to find a way to bring religion into alignment with the emerging scientific view of the world.

Yes, many Founders were Deists, but here a correction is needed. As theological terms, Deism means belief that a divine being made the universe but had nothing more to do with it; Theism. in contrast, means belief in a creator who continues to concern himself with human affairs.

Some of the signers of the Constitution did undoubtedly hold traditional Christian beliefs. But this does not mean they supported merging church and state.

Myth Five: Mottos like “In God We Trust” on currency and “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are evidence that separation of church and state was never intended.

Both of these phrases are of much more recent origin than many people believe.

“In God We Trust” is familiar to most Americans because it appears on U.S. currency. But early American money did not carry this phrase. The Fugio cent, a penny authorized by Congress in 1787 and reportedly designed by Benjamin Franklin, contained the mottos “Mind Your Business” and “We Are One” – a reference to the 13 colonies.

In God We Trust” didn’t appear on coins until the Civil War, when it was authorized for use on some coins minted in the North. The use of the phrase was sporadic on currency and was not codified until the 1950s. Around the same time, the phrase was adopted as the national motto. (“E Pluribus Unum” had been serving as an unofficial motto until then.) Many scholars believe that the adoption of these religious phrases was a reaction to the fight against “godless communism” during the Cold War.

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a minister and a socialist. Bellamy wrote the Pledge to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus. Bellamy’s Pledge, which did not include the phrase “under God,” appeared in a magazine called Youth’s Companion. After a lobbying campaign by the magazine … it was adopted for use in public schools as part of a daily flag-salute ritual. Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge in 1954, again as a reaction to the fight against communism.

In short, the Founders had nothing to do with these religious mottos or their adoption.

Myth Six: Thanks to separation of church and state, kids can’t pray in public schools.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963 banned programs of government-sponsored, compulsory prayer and Bible reading in public schools. The high court did not invalidate truly voluntary prayer and hasn’t done so since then. …  Young people in public schools today may pray and read religious books in a non-disruptive way – but the choice is now theirs. No students can be compelled to take part in religious worship in a public school or singled out for refusing to do so. …

In addition, the Supreme Court has made it clear that public schools can teach about religion in an objective manner. Religion can be discussed in classes like history, art, literature and others. The Bible and other religious texts can even be read as part of a comparative religion course. As long as the approach has legitimate educational goals, public school officials will not get into trouble for teaching about religion. …

Myth Seven: Separation of church and state fosters secularism, which drains religion of its vitality.

Official government secularism is not the enemy of faith; it is the defender of it. A secular state is one that is neutral on matters of theology. An official policy of government neutrality toward religion is a positive thing for faith communities.

The United States is a perfect example of how an official doctrine of secularism helps religion. In this country, the government long ago adopted a hands-off attitude toward religion. As a result, hundreds (if not thousands) of specific faith groups have sprung up on our shores. Religious groups remain vital, and most Americans claim a religious affiliation.

Other Western nations have either established churches or some form of government aid to religion. Ironically, it is in these nations where religion is withering away. It would seem that the official tie between church and state and the rejection of secularism as a legal principle sap faith of its vitality. In the end, religion becomes a mere creature of the state and a tool for promoting whatever policies government leaders decide are appropriate. This is not what people want, and they turn away from religion.

A thought, perhaps even a fact, that does not seem a happy one to us. If separation of church and state has actually encouraged religiosness and multiplied religions, it is not an unmitigated virtue of the Constituion after all. But it may be that freedom alone is responsible for the hundreds or thousands of churches in the US. And there is no consequence of freedom that can make it regrettable.

Myth Eight: Separation of church and state means that government must be hostile to religion.

In some countries, houses of worship are shuttered by government mandate, and religious people are persecuted. Nothing like that has occurred in the United States, which operates under the separation of church and state.

The separation principle contains two key parts: The government is to refrain from promoting, sponsoring or advocating for any faith. Yet at the same time, the government is required not to meddle in the internal affairs of religious groups or impose undue regulations and oversight on them. Church-state separation protects religion by placing it beyond the reach of government. …

Not quite “beyond the reach of government”. Government’s interfering hand has held out offerings:

Religious groups in America receive many benefits. They are wholly tax exempt and are often free from the regulatory oversight that is imposed on similarly situated secular groups. They are free to lobby and speak out on political issues. They often receive special exemptions and preferential treatment in secular law. Far from experiencing hostility, the place of religion in this nation where we separate church and state is in many ways exalted.

Myth Nine: Most religious leaders don’t support separation of church and state.

Some of the earliest proponents of separation of church and state were religious leaders. Roger Williams, a Puritan clergyman and the founder of Rhode Island, strongly advocated for separation during the colonial era. Years later, clerics like John Leland and Isaac Backus demanded separation as the best vehicle to protect the right of conscience for all.

In colonial Virginia and elsewhere, clergy from Baptist, Presbyterian and other traditions worked alongside Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to secure church-state separation. These religious leaders knew that only separation could protect their faith and enable it to prosper.

In the modern era, many members of the clergy … [and] religious denominations are on record as officially sup­porting the concept.

Myth Ten: Separation of church and state stifles the public voice and presence of religion.

Anyone who believes this hasn’t been paying attention. The United States operates under separation of church and state, yet religious groups have a loud and robust public voice. They speak out – from the left, right and center – on any number of political issues. As tax-exempt entities, houses of worship are not permitted under federal law to endorse or oppose candidates for public office, but there is nothing to stop them from addressing issues. … Nor does separation of church and state result in what one foe of the principle called a “naked public square”. It’s true that government may not post or erect religious symbols, but private religious groups are often able to use public space to display them with their own money and on their own time. All that is required is that the government must treat all religious and secular groups equally; if access to public space is extended to one group, it must be extended to all.

To sum up: the Constitution does require the separation of church and state, even though the phrase itself does not appear in it.


(Hat-tip Frank)

  • liz

    Excellent article!
    So many Christians perpetuate the idea that since the specific phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution, that it was never intended by the founders. They ignore the entire context and downplay it as if Jefferson had no idea what he was talking about! (Apparently Madison didn’t, either!)
    The contrary is obvious, and anyone who bothers to do even a minimal amount of study can find the evidence mentioned here.

    • Bruce

      Many of them are followers of David Barton, author of “The Jefferson Lies” and other far-right religious propaganda works. He’s nothing more than the religious-right version of Howard Zinn or Michael Moore: a polemicist and propagandist with only a nodding acquaintance with real history or truth, and no real concern for either. With people like Barton having so much influence, I feel that Barry Goldwater was entirely correct when he said, to sum up his feelings, that the religious nuts would be the death of the Republican party and the small-government brand.

      • liz

        Yes, and Goldwater was right, too.