Church and StateThis is the first part of a multi-part series on the issue of separation of church and state. With this being the holiday season, it just seemed appropriate to bring this issue up here on this blog considering this is the primary time of the year that we start hearing all the arguments for and against “separation of church and state.” Please keep in mind, while this discussion will attempt to remain as non-partisan and not promoting any single religion, the fact is the topic of this discussion is religion and it might appear there may be some encroachment on the non-partisanship promise of this blog. Please be rest assured, that is not the intent here.

The purpose of this discussion is to look at the historical context from which this idea was born and what it has meant to this country and religion over the past two centuries. The first place to start is the United States Constitution – in particular – the First Amendment as it relates to religion:

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

This is also known as “The Establishment Clause.”  The interpretation of this particular line of the First Amendment has caused quite a problem over the last 50 years in the United States.  Secular organizations have used this language to have all forms of religion removed from any public establishment including schools, government buildings, court houses, etc. at all levels of government (local, county, state, and federal).  Their premise is that the First Amendment requires an absolute separation of church and state.  But, there is absolutely no mention of this particular phrase in the entire U.S. Constitution.  So – where did this come about?

Well, the term “separation of church and state” is actually taken, some would say out of context, from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802.  You can find a copy of that letter to Jefferson here.  In short, their concern was that the First Amendment was not very clear with respect to religion.  They felt that their state, Connecticut, was legislating their Freedom of Religion as a favor versus an inalienable right.  They feared that without clarification of the First Amendment others would attempt to repress their God given right to practice their religion – a fear that has since come to fruition in the 20th century.

Here is the response from Thomas Jefferson (this is now called “Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter”):

Mr. President

To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.


The affectionate sentiments of esteem & approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful & zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more & more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, 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 and state. [Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from presenting even occasional performances of devotion presented indeed legally where an Executive is the legal head of a national church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.] Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

(signed) Thomas Jefferson

The bold in the letter above is mine in order to more clearly point out the phrase. Please note, when Thomas Jefferson was speaking with regards to this “wall of separation between church and state” he very clearly added that Congress will not encroach upon this freedom.  Thomas Jefferson was stating that the federal government would support no religion and would make no laws that would encroach upon man’s freedom to worship the religion of his choice. You have to remember, at this time, all the power was with the states.  The federal government has since usurped the states’ rights.  The entire Civil War was fought over states’ rights.  Jefferson made no statement regarding the rights that a state has over religion and the free practice thereof.  As he and the remaining founding fathers had envisioned in the U.S. Constitution, the states would make those decisions and the federal government would not attempt to supercede the decisions of the states with respect to the freedoms afforded by the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.  It was assumed that the states would adopt the same freedoms.

To further understand the reason for the founding fathers placing this in the Constitution we must look at the historical context and perspective from which this document was created.  Settlers from England came to this land in order to escape religious persecution by the King and Church of England.  During this period of time, there was an established state sponsored religion.  All those who did not follow the laws passed down from the Church of England were persecuted and prosecuted under the authority of the King.  Given this context, our founding fathers wanted to establish this country as a FREE country where one would be allowed to worship their religion of choice.  Our founding fathers were very religious individuals – it is for this that the very first line of the First Amendment specifically deals with religion in this country.

Some quotes from our founding fathers on religion:

George Washington -“Being no bigot myself, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church that road to heaven which to them shall seem the most direct, plainest, easiest and least liable to exception.”

Thomas Jefferson – “Religion, as well as reason, confirms the soundness of those principles on which our government has been founded and its rights asserted.” –Thomas Jefferson to P. H. Wendover, 1815. ME 14:283

“One of the amendments to the Constitution… expressly declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,’ thereby guarding in the same sentence and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press; insomuch that whatever violates either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others.” –Thomas Jefferson: Draft Kentucky Resolutions, 1798. ME 17:382

“The rights [to religious freedom] are of the natural rights of mankind, and… if any act shall be… passed to repeal [an act granting those rights] or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.” –Thomas Jefferson: Statute for Religious Freedom, 1779. (*) ME 2:303, Papers 2:546

Benjamin Franklin -“I believe in one God, the creator of the universe. That he governs by his providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.”

John Adams – “Statesmen my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand…. The only foundation of a free Constitution, is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People, in a greater Measure, than they have it now, They may change their Rulers, and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies. You cannot therefore be more pleasantly, or usefully employed than in the Way of your Profession, pulling down the Strong Holds of Satan. This is not Cant, but the real sentiment of my Heart.” — letter to Zabdiel Adams, 21 June 1776

While there are many more quotes regarding religion from many other founding fathers, I chose only to use those from the most prominent.  Please go check out the links I have provided here.  While I have provided some positive quotes here from them regarding religion, they each also have some negative views, particularly as it relates to religion and government.  A commonality that you will find among them is that while they professed their belief in God, other than Adams, there is still speculation as to exactly what religion they practiced.  As government leaders, they followed the laws they had written.  They were careful to not impose their own beliefs on the people.

John Adams was very outspoken when it comes to morality in government. He regularly referred to the bible as a building block for ensuring morality was present in both government and society:

[I]t is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.

The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If “Thou shalt not covet,” and “Thou shalt not steal,” were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society, before it can be civilized or made free.

The second quote is a warning from Adams that should morality and religion be removed from society and laws are not enacted to protect the laws of God then a society is doomed to become oppressed by allowing tyranny and anarchy to enter.

Now, knowing what Jefferson stated in his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association – go up there and read the third quote from him that I provided.  If he truly believed that religion and God were to be removed from the public – would he also say that any infringement upon the freedom of religion is against nature itself?  Is this not what in fact is happening all across this country with secular organizations filing lawsuits on a regular basis to have God removed from every part of our lives, including our currency?

With this being said, it still is not clear whether or not the First Amendment allows or disallows public practice of religion or whether secular organizations have an argument regarding local, county, and state governments allowing religious displays or freedom to practice religion on public funded property. The secular organizations continue to point to the First Amendment in their arguments saying it is not permitted.  One landmark case appears to support them:

Abington School District v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett

What is most noteworthy about this 1963 case is this further solidified the Supreme Court’s ability to apply federal law and trump states’ rights to apply law.  The initial case (Schempp) was brought forth by a Unitarian who opposed the state law requiring mandatory and literal readings of bible passages before school started.  The second was brought forth by an atheist (Murray) who opposed in-class prayers.  These cases were consolidated.  There was precedent set prior to these cases and cited as reason to strike down any form of mandated religious exercise in public schools.  This is the more noteworthy case because it was from this one that all others flourished that extended to public parks, buildings, monuments, etc.

Despite these rulings, it is now argued whether or not the Supreme Court actually interpreted the Constitution correctly.  These were state laws that are not addressed in the First Amendment.  Many have said that this country was created based on Christian fundamentals and therefore the United States is a Christian nation.  As a Christian myself, I would have to disagree.  The laws of this land and the freedoms we are afforded are based on “God’s” laws (or moral law/natural law), which is not disputed in historical text.  “God” is to be interpreted by an individual and as Jefferson so poignantly pointed out, religion is between an individual and his God.  The First Amendment does not establish any particular religion nor do our founding documents.  Our founding documents are based on the fact that we as individuals are provided “God-given” inalienable rights.  It is for you to determine who your God is.  That doesn’t mean that I have to believe in your God.  What the First Amendment means is that you have the right to believe your God is the true God and I have the right to disagree and believe that mine is the true God.

For those who may be in doubt as to whether or not our laws are framed from God’s laws – I provide these quotes from framers of the Constitution (All of these individuals had influential input in writing the Constitution):

Andrew Jackson – The Bible is the rock upon which this Republic rests

James Madison – We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future…upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to sustain ourselves, according to the Ten Commandments of God

Gouverneur Morris (The author of the final draft) -Religion is the solid basis of good morals; therefore education should teach the precepts of religion, and the duties of man toward God.

Patrick Henry -It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ! For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.

John Adams – Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.

Noah WebsterThe Bible must be considered as the great source of all the truth by which men are to be guided in government as well as in all social transactions.

While God is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution – His influence is the guiding principle behind many of our laws.  It begs the question again, did our founding fathers intend a complete separation of church and state at levels below the federal government?

Having said all of this, with the First Amendment and our founding documents being all encompassing of all religions, and non-religion, while there may not be an actual law stating there must be a wall of separation between church and state at a non-federal level, I do support the idea that no individual should be required to recite, read, or engage in the religious practice of another.  But, I do not agree that ALL religion should be banned from the public eye.  In fact, I contend that is the exact opposite of what our forefathers intended.

Bob O

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