The Separation of Church And State

The Separation of Church And State

In 1802, representatives of the Danbury Baptist Association wrote to Thomas Jefferson inquiring about his refusal to follow in the footsteps of presidents George Washington and John Adams, who declared religiously-based national holidays of fasting and thanksgiving. Jefferson’s response referred to a symbolic “wall of separation” between religion and the state, a phrase that finds expression again and again in the debate over the extent religion should play in the public arena. 

The institutions of religion and government have been noted in most every world civilization since the inception of recorded history, and for better or for worse most all societies have attempted to marry the two. Whereas Muslims and Jews, for example, both operate under systems of government that could be defined as theocratic or God-centered, one of the fundamental attractions to theoretical American democracy was its refusal to go this route: enter the outdated concept of religious freedom.

The first ten amendments to the Constitution are known as our Bill of Rights, and they went into effect December 15, 1791 after the state of Virginia ratified them, giving the bill the majority support required to empower the individual and curtail the power of the federal government. James Madison authored the first 45 words of this historic document, also known as the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause.

In full it reads: “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; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” 

The 1987 version of our Constitution provides that “the separation of Church and State shall be inviolable,” and that “no law shall be made respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Though any proclamation of the framer’s intent is speculative, taken at face value our First Amendment liberties convey two basic ideas:

1) the government has no right to establish a religion and coerce it upon the citizens;

2) every citizen has the right to exercise their own religion or lack thereof.

It was in this context that the First Amendment was adopted. The battle cry was for the non-establishment of any religion by the state and the freedom of citizens to belong to any religious sect without being discriminated against.

Our blueprint for personal freedom and the hallmark of a free marketplace of ideas, the First Amendment protects the freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition, and it was written because at America’s inception, citizens demanded a guarantee of their basic freedoms.

It is important to point out that modern interpretation of the separation clause as an absolute, legalistic, total severance between church and state are much more exclusive and separatist, going beyond the spirit of the law. State-mandated prayer is one thing; a moment of silence where prayer is allowed another entirely. 

In spite of all this, the early colonists were most definitely a religious lot, and their religion often influenced their politics. Prior to 1787, many of the colonies and early states required pledges of allegiance to particular sects of Christianity in order to vote or hold public office, a notion modern Americans would reject forthrightly.

Our founding fathers revolted against these and other expressions of tyranny, fleeing England when the nation declared the Church of England the official religion. The possibilities for unfairness are evident, and they have always played out in history: subscribers to the state-sponsored religion enjoy special benefits and privileges, while adherents to less popular faiths become national scapegoats whenever the furor of the state-sponsored religion gets whipped up.

This is precisely the scenario that led to the execution of Friar Giordano Bruno in 1600 and the banning of Galileo’s Dialogues on Two World Systems shortly thereafter. Coming off the heels of political tyranny and religious oppression under the monarchy of England, the founding fathers sought to prevent these atrocities from ever happening again…