Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Myth Behind "Separation of Church and State"

This country was established upon the assumption that religion was essential to good government. On July 13, 1787, the Continental Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which stated: "Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged." (1) The First Amendment prohibited the federal government from establishing a religion to which the several states must pay homage. The First Amendment provided assurance that the federal government would not meddle in the affairs of religion within the sovereign states. 

In modern times groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have attempted to create an environment wherein government and religion are adversaries. Their favorite phrase has been "separation of church and state." These groups have intoned the mantra of "separation of church and state" so long that many people believe the phrase is in the Constitution. In Proverbs Chapter 18, verse 16, the Bible says, "He who states his case first seems right until another comes to challenge him." I'm sure you have seen legal arguments on television where the prosecution argues to the jury that the defendant is guilty. Once the prosecution finishes the opening presentation, you believe that the defendant is guilty. However, after the defense attorney completes the rebuttal presentation of the evidence, you may be confused, or at least you acknowledge that the case is not clear cut. 

The same is true with the phrase "separation of church and state." The ACLU and the liberal media have touted the phrase so many times that most people believe the phrase is in the Constitution. Nowhere is "separation of church and state" referenced in the Constitution. This phrase was in the former Soviet Union's Constitution, but it has never been part of the United States Constitution. 

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "It is one of the misfortunes of the law that ideas become encysted in phrases, and thereafter for a long time cease to provoke further analysis." (2) The phrase, "separation of church and state," has become one of these misfortunes of law. 

In 1947 the Supreme Court popularized Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state." (3) Taking the Jefferson metaphor out of context, strict separationists have often used the phrase to silence Christians and to limit any Christian influence from affecting the political system. To understand Jefferson's "wall of separation," we should return to the original context in which it was written. Jefferson himself once wrote: 

On every question of construction, [we must] carry ourselves back to the time when the constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the test, or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was a part. (4) 

Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as the third President on March 4, 1801. On October 7, 1801, a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association wrote a congratulatory letter to Jefferson on his election as President. Organized in 1790, the Danbury Baptist Association was an alliance of churches in Western Connecticut. The Baptists were a religious minority in the state of Connecticut where Congregationalism was the established church. (5) 

The concern of the Danbury Baptist Association is understandable once we understand the background of church-state relations in Great Britain. The Association eschewed the kind of state sponsored enforcement of religion that had been the norm in Great Britain. 

The Danbury Baptist Association committee wrote to the President stating that, "Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals -- that no man ought to suffer in Name, person or affects on account of his religious Opinions." (6) The Danbury Baptists believed that religion was an unalienable right and they hoped that Jefferson would raise the consciousness of the people to recognize religious freedom as unalienable. However, the Danbury Baptists acknowledged that the President of the United States was not a "national Legislator" and they also understood that the "national government cannot destroy the Laws of each State." (7) In other words, they recognized Jefferson's limited influence as the federal executive on the individual states.

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