Whenever a certain policy or practice has even the slightest whiff of a biblical precept influencing the culture, we predictable hear the phrase “separation of church and state” raised as a cudgel in protest. That is frequently countered by the apparently astute individual who responds that those words are neither in the U.S. Constitution or any official document. While that claim is certainly true, it actually misses the larger point.
Despite the words missing from the Constitution, there is no doubt the First Amendment enshrines the concept of church/state separation. The real problem is few people understand what the concept itself means from a historical perspective. It is especially true of militant secularists.
The religious clauses of the First Amendment have morphed from their original meaning into a concept of virtual affirmative action for secularists, while granting merely private “freedom of worship” to the believer. Given that the “free exercise of religion” is the very first right enumerated in the Bill of Rights, and that the Bill of Rights always restricts the government and not the individual or the citizenry, we see the evidence regarding the importance of religious liberty to our Founders.
Justice Joseph Story wrote the first commentary of the U.S. Constitution in the 19th century, and was very careful to articulate the purpose of the First Amendment’s religious clauses..
“The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mohamedism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government. It thus cut off the means of religious persecution (the vice and pest of former ages), and of the subversion of the rights of conscience in matters of religion which had been trampled upon almost from the days of the Apostles to the present age. . . . Probably at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the first amendment to it . . . the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State, so far as was not incompatible with the previous rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.”
The Founders experienced the tyrannical practices of the Anglican state church in colonial America and endeavored to avoid those drawbacks by forbidding a nationalized state church, including persecution of those with differing beliefs. That’s all the establish clause meant at the time. There was no attempt to sequester biblical precept from government policy. In fact, there were several individual states that had established denominational churches, which continued legally under the First Amendment. It was functionally a wall of separation between the federal government and the rights of individual states and their respective religious societies. This was the concept known as “federalism.”
Thomas Jefferson clarified his position in an excerpt from his second inaugural address in 1805.
“In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general [i.e., federal] government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of State or Church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.”
Jefferson had declared days of public prayer while serving as governor of Virginia.
Did America establish a secular government? It depends what you mean by the word secular. If you mean non-ecclesiastical, then yes. If you mean anti-biblical, then no.
George Washington himself commented of the vital relationship between religion and politics in his Farewell Address.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion..”
I think it highly unlikely that Washington as head of the constitutional committee drawing up and adopting the language of the First Amendment, later forgot what it meant.
The separation of church and state functions much like the separation of powers doctrine with the three branches of the federal government. There is a functional and jurisdictional separation, not an ideological one. The church represents grace and charity, the state deals with the administration of justice and punishment (Roman13:1-7). Each sphere has duties and a scope of influence consistent with its purpose.
It should be noted that church/state separation can exist even in theocratic societies, which would be news to the secularist. The secularist conflates an “ecclesiocracy” (rule by clerics), with Theocracy, which is rule by God which delegates different authorities to the institutions of church and state respectively. The biblical record beginning In 2 Chronicles 26:16, tells the story of King Uzziah, who burned incense in the temple acting as a priest. When confronted by the priests and told it wasn’t appropriate given his jurisdictional duties as the civil authority, the king defied them, and was stricken with leprosy as punishment for his disobedience.
Having said all that, the late SCOTUS Chief Justice William Rehnquist has this to say about the “separation of church and state metaphor,” in his dissent to a 1985 SCOTUS decision.
“...no amount of repetition of historical errors in judicial opinions can make the errors true. The “wall of separation between church and State” is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.”
I can only provide a short amount of information in an Op-Ed. For that reason, I am giving two links that provide an exhaustive survey of this topic.
The first is the late Chief Justice’s dissent in the 1985 Wallace v. Jaffree decision.
The second is an article by historian Daneil Driesbach on the origin of the famous "wall of separation between church and state” metaphor.
Both of these take up about 30 minutes of reading time combined, but contain the information essential to confounding the historical revisionists.© Robert Meyer
The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.