Monday, October 5, 2009

Separation of church and state, pure fiction

Recently a column appeared in The Dallas Morning News written by Bill Baumbach, bemoaning a supposed violation of another supposition, the fictional concept of separation of church and state.

The term "separation of church and state" can not be found anywhere in the United States Constitution as written at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, attended by 55 delegates. The First Amendment to the Constitution reads in part,

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

The term "separation of church and state," was taken from a letter President Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802. Here is a link to the text of that letter:


It should be noted Thomas Jefferson was not one of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, he was in France when the Constitution was being written.

President George Washington who was a delegate to that Convention deeply believed in God and the relationship with such belief in government, as he wrote,

"It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible."

"What students would learn in American schools above all is the religion of Jesus Christ."

John Adams believed morality could not exist without religion. In a speech to the military in 1798, he claimed, "our Constitution is made only for a moral and religious people."

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1815: "religion, as well as reason, confirms the soundness of those principles on which our government has been founded and its rights asserted."


Doug Indeap said...

The phrase “separation of church and state” is but a metaphor to describe the underlying principle of the First Amendment and the no-religious-test clause of the Constitution. The absence of the phrase in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, only to those who may have once labored under the misimpression the words appeared there and later learned of their mistake. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to describe one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

While some try to pass off the Supreme Court's decisions, particularly Everson v. Board of Education, as simply a misreading of Jefferson's reference to separation of church and state in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, that letter played but a small part in the Court's decisions. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court's view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to "[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government." Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that old habits die hard and that tendencies of citizens and politicians could and sometimes did lead them to entangle government and religion (e.g., "the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress" and "for the army and navy" and "[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts"), he considered the question whether these were "consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom" and responded: "In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion."

The First Amendment embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to transform our secular government into some form of religion-government partnership should be resisted by every patriot.

Luke Fisher said...

The founders also realized that even Christians did not agree on everything, it would be fruitless to have a state religion. Great post.