church & state
a summary on the
separation of church & state
Sheldon Mudd, MA, History
The “Separation of Church and State,” a phrase all too often exploited in the defense of an ideological viewpoint and nearly just as often taken out of context for the same purpose. No other phrase in modern American society, outside of perhaps Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not, that ye be not judged”) has been used to such an extent to prove an invalid point. Further, the phase has become such a mantra in the course of civil dialog that many actually believe that it is plucked directly from the U.S. Constitution. I personally have been in official meetings where lawyers (yes, Bar certified lawyers) have referenced the “separation of church and state as cited within the U.S. Constitution!" The fact is, the phrase is not there; no matter how hard a person looks, they are simply left with the first amendment terminology that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” In modern terminology that translates; there will be no official state religion and the state will not prohibit individuals from worshiping as they please. That’s it! At the end of the day, that is what the Constitution of the United States says in regards to religion and government.
So where does the phrase originate? That is a good question and we’re going to get to that, but first, we must set the scene. Unfortunately, people, both secular and religious, often times fail to read historical writing in the context of which it was written – once again this goes for secular documents and the Bible itself. We have gotten used to a culture and a society where religious freedom is granted at will to the individuals practicing their respective forms of worship. This is unprecedented in world history. One only has to rewind the clock a couple of hundred years to find themselves ruled by kings, governments, tribes, etc. who determine for the whole which deity they will worship and how it will be done. This is what I refer to as “top-down religious influence” or government’s influence on individuals’ faith. Only a couple of hundred years removed from the time of the American Revolution, Great Britain found itself shifting violently from Catholicism under Queen Mary I to Protestantism under Queen Elizabeth I; as a result, many people died in defense of their faith. Europe was so caught up in this “top-down” approach that a group of religious purists, known as “Pilgrims” fled the continent, braving an unknown new world, in an effort to avoid persecution.
As Colonial America developed, the Crown of Great Britain once again took hold of the reins of power and with that, the Anglican Church became the official faith of British America. As a result, the Revolutionary generation were well aware of the liabilities and conflicts that arise from state sanctioned religion. Because of this, and the fact that newly elected President, Thomas Jefferson, had a reputation of being one of little faith who dabbled in the philosophies of deism, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote him a letter in 1801 to confirm that he would not use his position of power to influence their individual right to worship. They stated, “Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty—That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals—That no man ought to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions—That the legitimate Power of civil Government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.” It is clear to see by their language, they are concerned with “top-down religious influence” fearing that the government may soon interject and hold them in contempt of the law regarding their modes and methods of worship. President Jefferson responds to their letter on January 1, 1802 to quickly put their minds at ease. Jefferson first quotes the U.S. Constitution then delivers the famous phrase, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” As a result, the Danbury Baptists could rest easy knowing that the United States government would not intervene nor influence their approach to worship.
This separation of church & state, and specifically in relation to top-down religious influence is paramount to both the believer and the non-believer alike. As mentioned by the correspondence between the Danbury Baptist Association and Jefferson himself, it protects the rights of the individual. But one has to ask, was this a two dimensional wall? When modern activists invoke the “separation of church and state” phrase, their concern is not motivated by fear of top-down religious influence but more so with “bottom-up religious influence.” Whether it be a prayer at a public high school football game or the Ten Commandments displayed in front of a county courthouse, these represent a “bottom-up” approach or the individual’s faith influence on government.
So, once again, was the “wall of separation” meant to be two dimensional? Did it create a barrier by which both top-down and bottom-up influences could be halted? If so, the Founding Fathers who established and deployed this principle did not get the message. In a letter to the Massachusetts Militia John Adams states, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other…” Further, George Washington writing to the states in 1783 proclaimed, “I now make it my earnest prayer, that God… would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy and to demean ourselves, with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion and without a humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.” In addition to these and hundreds of other such quotes, the Continental and U.S. Congress developed dozens of proclamations urging the U.S. population to fast, pray, refrain from profanity, and invoke the benevolence of God in an effort ensure national felicity (happiness). Music, architecture, and symbolism of the colonial and Revolutionary period, all laden with references to God and the Bible. The evidence is available and overwhelming. The Founders of this country expected, encouraged, and implored the citizens of the United States to exercise their faith for the good of the nation proving that the wall of separation was a one dimensional wall; government would have no influence on individual worship but individuals of sound moral character and righteous virtue would undoubtedly be expected to influence their government.