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Separation of Church and State

Righty: America was settled by Christians, its Founding Fathers were Christians, and the vast majority of Americans today are Christians. So why should we cater to a tiny minority of vicious heathens who would trample our rights and force us to remove all signs of our faith from schools and public spaces? We must protect our religion against all those who would take it from us. You have to agree that something is seriously wrong when public schools teach our kids about homosexuality while banishing any reference to God and the Bible. You know the world has gone mad when we can’t even mention the word “Christmas” in public without incurring somebody’s wrath. (“Holiday tree,” indeed! You can have your holiday tree, Lefty, but don’t you dare touch my CHRISTMAS tree! That’s CHRISTmas! Merry CHRISTmas, you goddamn atheist!) The Founding Fathers would be spinning in their graves if they knew how successfully the anti-Christian forces in America have used the Bill of Rights to justify their crusade against God. We must turn the tide and take back this nation for Christ.

Lefty: The Bill of Rights guarantees the separation of church and state. The fact that Christians constitute a majority does not entitle them to impose their beliefs on the rest of the nation. That’s the beauty of the First Amendment. We must prohibit the expression of religious beliefs in all public institutions and venues. That means no Christmas carols, no menorahs, no Ten Commandments plaques on court houses, no prayers at presidential inaugurations. “In God We Trust” should come off U.S. coins out of respect for those of us who don’t trust in God, and likewise we must delete the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance — everyone knows it was inserted there during the McCarthy hysteria. The majority of America’s Founding Fathers were Deists, not Christians; they spoke of God only in the abstract sense of “Providence” and certainly didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus or the inerrancy of the Bible. We must honor their wise decision to keep religion out of the public arena. Nyah, nyah, Righty!

The New Moderate:

I’ve looked in vain for any phrase resembling “separation of church and state” in the U.S. Bill of Rights. With regard to religion, the First Amendment actually states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That’s it. Surprised? The wording might be a little vague, but the Founding Fathers were simply saying that when it comes to religion, Congress won’t meddle. No official state religion… no prohibition of religion. Have it your way, those noble Dead White Males were telling us. Worship Yahweh or Quetzalcoatl or nobody at all. Congress won’t tell you what to believe.

How this wise and benign concept morphed into the secularist catchphrase “separation of church and state” is a matter for serious scholars of American history to ponder. The New Moderate isn’t quite serious or scholarly enough to attempt it here. All I have going for me is a documented 99th percentile aptitude for verbal reasoning (don’t ask about my mechanical reasoning score). Based on that aptitude, I can assert with relative confidence that the public dismantling of religion is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind (remember, they refused to prohibit “the free exercise thereof”).

For example, the First Amendment appears to be powerless to ban God from public schools, since those schools are run by local governments, not by Congress. Neither can it ban nativity scenes or Ten Commandments plaques from public squares, because those squares, like the schools, fall under the dominion of local governments, not Congress.

Like the Founding Fathers, The New Moderate adamantly opposes any form of theocracy. I don’t want the Holy Bible to be the law of the land (for starters, we’d have to execute people who work on the Sabbath). But I have to conclude that the left has been distorting the First Amendment to promote a secularist agenda, that the Supreme Court has been a willing accomplice, and that the rest of the country has been seriously snookered.

But that’s not the end of our argument: in a New Moderate utopia, nobody would impose religious (or irreligious) beliefs on anyone else. This is a simple matter of civility, not legality. The right-leaning Christian majority in this utopia would be considerate enough to acknowledge that not everyone submits to their creed (or needs to). They’d never force nonbelievers to participate in a Christmas pageant or expect them to intone the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. But non-Christians would be open-minded enough to participate in that Christmas pageant out of sheer good will. They’d still be non-Christians after all is said and done.

A personal note: Back in grade school, many decades ago, I stepped in for an absent Jewish friend during the Hanukkah segment of our holiday pageant. I recited a story about the Maccabees and the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days. Reciting those words didn’t make me Jewish, but for some reason it made me feel good to the core.

Summary: The Bill of Rights made no provision for “separation of church and state;” on the contrary, it defended the “free exercise” of religious beliefs. Secularists cannot point to the First Amendment to justify their anti-religious campaigns. The New Moderate supports the free expression of religion in a civil and non-coercive manner, but theocracy has no place in American life.

29 Comments leave one →
  1. Michelangelo Markus permalink
    September 22, 2009 10:04 pm

    The separation of church and state idea comes from the fact that if the government inserts religion into itself, such as putting phrases like “under God” in the pledge of allegiance, it IS meddling. It’s not remaining neutral, it’s actively promoting the idea that this is a nation that is Christian or at least believes in God. The ten commandments on the courthouse steps, the requirement of swearing to tell the truth on the bible, these are not non-interfering acts. Those are acts which actively promote one religion as more “official” than the others or lack thereof.

    In order for the government to be neutral it’d have to be secular. You are right that congress doesn’t have the right to stop public schools from doubling as a church school if they so choose. (I doubt any actually do, at least I’d hope not.) However the courts DO have the right to, as schools are government entities and all aspects of every government, local, state, or national, are required to follow the constitution, and having a government entity, however subtly, push one religion or even several above the others would be unconstitutional. And it’s the courts job to defend the constitution. Congress is not empowered with that ability.

    • September 27, 2009 1:10 pm

      I agree that government shouldn’t insert religion into our daily lives. But what I was trying to emphasize here is the somewhat suspect origins of that secularist catchphrase, “separation of church and state.” The First Amendment actually states simply that Congress won’t establish an official religion for our country. The amendment implies that individual states and municipalities are free to treat religion as they see fit. I’m not a Constitutional scholar; I remember reading once that some Supreme Court decision, much later in our history, was responsible for the “separation” clause that most liberals mistakenly attribute to the Bill of Rights.

      • Valdo permalink
        November 23, 2009 5:19 pm

        Well… there is no such a phrase, “Separation of church and state”, because you cannot cut the religiousness out from a governmental representative… can you?
        But Michelangelo Markus is right that if there was no religion in the pledge, and if new religious innuendo was inserted in government oriented act, then what is wrong with the new “separation of church and state” catchphrase?

  2. November 24, 2009 10:04 am

    Valdo: Welcome to my other world. Yes, that “under God” phrase was inserted into the pledge during the McCarthy era, when the government was anxious to draw a line between godfearing “real” Americans and godless Communists. I don’t know who suggested the phrase, but I’d guess that Constitutional experts assumed they weren’t establishing an official state religion. After all, “everyone” was supposed to believe in God except for those evil Communists.

    My primary objection to “separation of church and state” is just that it’s a faulty interpretation of the 1st Amendment. It strikes me as willfully faulty, too — as if the secularists are trying to sneak one past the American public. I have nothing against a secular state (I certainly don’t think we should be a theocratic state), but I do have objections to a state that bans religion from all public arenas. That wasn’t the intent of the 1st Amendment.

    • Surprise permalink
      April 6, 2012 3:40 am

      Mr. Bayan, you’re right that the 1st amendment (or any of the Bill of Rights) did not originally apply the states; however, beginning in the 1920s, a series of United States Supreme Court decisions interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to “incorporate” most portions of the Bill of Rights, making these portions, for the first time, enforceable against the state governments.

      I think that, on the whole, these decisions were VERY wise. Without such interpretations, states have the right to limit free speech and assembly, establish a particular state church and religious test for state offices, and to teach a specific religion in the public schools with tax-payer money. If we held to pre-1920’s interpretations, Utah might have had Mormonism as its official state religion. If we continue on in the future in such a way, Texas might become officially the “Southern Baptism State”; Michigan the “Sunni Islam State”; and Florida the “Scientology State.” It would be a very Balkanized America, and individuals would not be guaranteed political freedoms under the U.S. Constitution.

      Having said that, anti-theist secularists have gone overboard in their campaign to rid the public sphere of religion. Instead of campaigning to do away with creches in public spaces, or insisting that snarky atheist signs mocking religion accompany creches at Christmas time, why not fight for the right to post exhibits celebrating Darwin and evolution on Darwin’s Birthday? Or to display an artifact celebrating science, empiricism, and critical thinking on the date Rutherford split the atom? Don’t even get me started about the suit by the American Atheist Organization to disallow the cross made of steel beams found at Ground Zero appearing in a publically-funded museum. Unbelieveable.

      What does make sense, however, is when the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers pushes to ensure that senior officers are not evangelizing non-religious subordinates or subordinates of other faiths, or forcing enlisted men and women to attend religious meetings. Or when the American Athiest Organization files suit to ensure that public school officials or teachers are not evangelizing their students, or establishing a particular religion within the classroom.

      • Anonymous permalink
        August 13, 2013 8:49 pm

        Actually, we are doing all of the above and a quick Internet search will teach you where the seperation of church and state came from.

        Our founders were not indeed Christians. Most of them would be at odds with even the most liberal of today’s Christians. Most were deists and a few were bordering on agnostic. It was Thonas Jefferson, one of our Founders, that mentioned a “wall of seperation” between church and state. The treaty of Tripoli, which specifically declares that America is not a Christian nation, was a noncontroversial document that was approved by every governmental official of the day that had any say in the matter. Another quick Internet search will teach you that nearly every Founder agreed that religion has no place in the US government.

    • Andy Tonti permalink
      July 13, 2012 1:45 pm

      I agree fully with you Rick. Many Americans feel strongly about their religious faiths but
      feel intimidated or even embarassed about expressing them other than in houses of worship or at other “religious” events, i.e. concerts, revivals, rallies, to name some. We allow freedom of worship here but we segregate its exhibition between appropriate public
      behavior and a time and a place appropriate for religious behavior. What’s so different between a public display of religious fervor and joy, and excitement and hoopla at an outdoor concert, parade, festival, etc.? Are we embarassed/ashamed to display our affection and praise over our religious beliefs because it may violate some public convention.

      Andy

      • dave bowen permalink
        December 26, 2013 1:37 pm

        I can answer that. Expressing ones religious beliefs in any place other than a house of worship,is not only rude,it violates the rights of those who perhaps do not share your views. Especially when you express them in Congress! My spiritual beliefs are just that. MINE and are nobody elses business.I do not force them on others,I do not want those of others forced on me. Especially in a public arena.

  3. Valdo permalink
    November 24, 2009 2:03 pm

    Hi Rick!
    I remember first time when I realized what is religion and what is politics when it comes to the matters of governing. It was Eugen Weber, an illustrious history professor at LA University. He did an extraordinary documentary film called “The Western Tradition” (I would buy the DVD, but it is so darn expensive!).
    So, this guy mentions that before Christianity, the governing of Antics was interrelated to the point you could not distinguish if the government took a decision purely for political purposes or just because the gods said so.
    Muslims, Jews and Hindu were and are exclusive religion “driven” governments, And then Christians made “official state religion”, starting with Armenia as you know.
    Kings were named by Pope, kings were fighting in the name of God, kings raised churches, and so on and so forth. “Pure” politics as we know it, is something relatively recent idea. But the point of “pure” politics was to unite and give a national identity for small and fragmented regions in Europe.
    Politicians will govern and, due to so many religions that happen to be on a given territory, will “harmonize” the religions within the state.
    USA was established on the same principles, but the politicians were still Christians and as I mentioned before, you cannot cut religiousness from politics inside the skull of government representative.
    The First Amendment was a tentative to have delimitation, a boundary if you want, between what is politics and what is religion when it comes to governing.
    Unfortunately, after the WWII, some US government representatives were insecure in their power to politically government the US, and inserted “under God” to feel that they are “better” than Communists, even if this insertion *is a faulty interpretation* of the 1st Amendment.
    Naturally, if you want to continue to politically govern a state, you have to come up with another “faulty interpretation”, you named it “separation of church and state”, that actually is more in the vicinity of the 1st Amendment than it is “under God”.
    “Separation of church and state” defends the free exercise of religion, while “under God” limits political governing because you cannot be a “good” politician unless you believe in God. In religion you find more brawling encounters than in politics. So let politics be politics and religion whatever it is.

  4. Taliesin Knol permalink
    January 5, 2010 2:32 pm

    Regarding the Congress’ alleged inability to remove nativity scenes/ten commandments; Yes, they can, the same way the FBI takes over local police investigations, Federal trumps local. But that’s beside the point, I don’t think they actually have to move religous scenes from public, but if local atheists decide to put up arguments against religion in the same public place, then they should be allowed to, without protest or discrimination. Also, the phrase “under God/in God we trust” should be removed, because that deals woth religion in public. “No law respecting religion” remember?

    • Dianne permalink
      November 30, 2010 1:43 pm

      That phrase on our money is not a law. Therefore your argument does not hold up. The founders were Christian and in the Constitution (preamble, I believe) say that this country is founded under God. Let’s leave things alone and stop looking for little things to argue about. Our country has so many big issues to deal with. If you want to keep religion out of “State” keep watch for NEW things and keep them out instead of trying to change old history including the Constitution and First Amendment.

      • November 30, 2010 5:42 pm

        “Bigger issues” are readily dealt with elsewhere on the site, however, this particular section deals specifically with religion and the state. As for changing the Constitution, “god” is mentioned nowhere in it. It IS in the Declaration of Independence, though. But that most of the founders (not ALL of them mind you) were Christian doesn’t preclude them from a secular mindset. Secularism is about the freedom to worship as one pleases and the freedom to reject it. For the state to endorse a religion, however, while not really a malign totalitarian tactic as many supposed secularists believe, is NOT in conjunction with secularism.

      • Anonymous permalink
        August 13, 2013 9:06 pm

        There is no mention of a god in the Constitution. There was plenty of discussion from theocrats when the Constitution was being created, but our Founders thought better of it knowing that religion in government only causes division. You can’t see it because you are being priviliged and favored. if the phrase said “Don’t Trust God” or “In Satan We Trust”, would you be looking for things to argue about then? If you were in the stigmatized minority, you would be much more sensitive to how your privileging makes other religious people and nonbelievers into second class citizens. My child should not have to feel singled out and be made an outsider because the phrase “One Nation Under God” was inserted into the previously secular Pledge of Allegiance in the 1950s. And one more time, the Founders were mostly deists that would be at complete odds with modern day Christians, particularly theocratic and dominionist leaning ones. Regardless of all of the history and what the Founders actually meant and even if secularists are completely wrong, for the sake of equality and freedom, is it going to hurt an all powerful god to lose some pointless lip-service? At worst, the selfish wing of Christianity may be saddened by their loss of privilege, but wouldn’t it be worth it to ensure that all Americans are equal and free?

  5. Amontillada permalink
    May 9, 2010 10:56 am

    The phrase “separation of church and state” appears, not in the Constitution, but in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to committee members of the Danbury (CT) Baptist association. He compared the First Amendment to “building a wall of separation between Church & State. ”

    As a student of history, I believe in the importance of historical context in analysis. At the of the foundation of the United States and framing of the Constitution, many countries had not just an official state religion, but in Christian countries an official state church. Great Britain, to take the obvious example, officially recognized the Church of England. France was officially Roman Catholic; states in the Holy Roman Empire were officially Catholic or Lutheran, and so on. Other religious groups, especially “rival” Christian denominations, were often legally forbidden in those states. In England, for example, the Roman Catholic Church was illegal, as were Huguenots (a Protestant group) in France.

    Many of the colonies were founded by members of a forbidden or oppressed religious group who fled their home country looking for a place where they could practice their beliefs–and, ironically, some of them made other religious practices illegal in their colonies! Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, was a Calvinist expelled from the Massachusetts Bay colony for clashing with its religious and political positions.

    The history of Western Europe shows many examples of discrimination–from persecution to outright war–between Christian churches. This was recent history to Jefferson, as it was to the Framers of the Constitution who insisted on the First Amendment.

  6. valdobiade permalink
    May 10, 2010 4:29 pm

    @Amontillada: The Framers of the Constitution were smart enough not to create a state based on religion. The Europe, at time, was emerging from the religious and and monarchic structures to more open minded political structure.

    It is mostly in the last few decades when christian fundamentalists want to reintroduce a religious based government because of insecurity they feel for loosing the chrstianims to which they are used.

    “… one nation under god”, and “… in god we trust” , “10 commandments in government buildings”, are just recent examples of sectarian American christian fundamentalists trying to interfere and control politics. The control is mostly directed in banning abortion choice, gay marriage, and create a so called “family values” based on christianism.

  7. May 16, 2010 11:46 pm

    Amontillada: Welcome! Thanks for furnishing us with the source of “separation of church and state.” I had read someplace that it originated with a Supreme Court ruling, but they might have based their decision on Jefferson’s letter. In any case, I’m concerned that progressives are overlooking (willfully or otherwise) the “free exercise” portion of the First Amendment, while conservatives are overlooking the “no establishment of religion” part. The First Amendment struck a fine balance, an ideal moderate approach to religion and the state. But maybe it was a little too vague and open to interpretation.

    Valdo: Christianism is a good term to describe the belief system of the fundamentalist fanatics (Christianists?) — comparable to Islamism and Islamists, and distinct from the humane religion espoused by its founder.

  8. May 17, 2010 2:28 pm

    Rick, I think that the separation of church and state was, in Europe, a consolidation of nationalism. The church, especially Catholic church, did not mind to control all Europe and beyond. However, you need a political governing body to keep a modern country.

    I believe that the US conception as an independent state, was at the beginning of European period of separation of church and state, I think with the French Revolution and all that.

    I am not sure, maybe you can help me here…

  9. October 21, 2010 3:47 am

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  10. October 21, 2010 6:16 pm

    Amontillada DOES have it right. Jefferson’s famous letter, though, was actually a response to those Baptists in Danbury, CT. They’d written Jefferson to voice their displeasure at CT adopting a state religion, which in that case was Congregationalism. These Baptists found such an adoption objectionable not (solely?) on principle, but in practice. The taxes Connecticut’s Congregational majority levied against the Danbury Baptists were used, at least in part, to maintain Congregational churches–unless, of course, these Baptists filled out an exemption form for their taxes to be rerouted to their own church. A compromise, admittedly, but still a lamentable development. They felt having to wade through any red tape at all to worship within their own religion freely was “degrading,” and I’m inclined to agree.

    This practice is an example of the pratfalls of state-endorsed religion. As a staunch atheist/secularist, my opinion on this isn’t surprising, but it must be noted that, while many of us deem said practice unwise, it was in fact achieved through a democratic process. The majority of CT at the time were Congregationalists, and so voted for the state government to sponsor that particular faith. This isn’t unconstitutional (the speciousness of strict constitutionalism is a subject we can perhaps get into at another time) in the least.

    However, Michelangelo Markus also has it right: a secular paradigm is the true impetus for the concept of religious freedom. So few seem to understand what that means. Mr Bayan is correct about the current left-wingers who purport to be secularists. While the freedom to reject religion is just as implicit in the 1st Amendment as freedom to practice it, lefties tend to only recognize the former. And of course a great many righties see only the latter, which typically spoils any chance of a productive discourse on the subject within most political forums.

    Great post, Mr. Bayan.

    grey

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  12. spittinmad permalink
    March 14, 2012 1:40 pm

    I do think civility really is the cornerstone. I personally don’t have an issue with creche scenes on public property, though I do think a decorated tree would be more mainstream and thus perhaps more appropriate. Possibly more civil. ;)

    But I much more strongly feel that atheist “activists” are extremely ill-advised to take on such scenes. I believe their legal attacks clearly lack civility, and are tailor-made for local TV news spots that make all atheists look quite wacky. And the local TV station will find one or two of these every year. Anything on a slow news day. Great teasers: “Local atheists protest holiday display! Video at 5!”

    It would be nice (civil?) to back the “under god” phrase out of the pledge. I’d like to not have to choose between my self-respect and my country on the rare occasions I still stumble across a public pledge. Perhaps if “under god” was returned to the dustbin of history, a few less hard-left atheists would protest creche scenes? Or would that be more accurately stated as a few less atheists would be hard-left?

    • valdobiade permalink
      March 14, 2012 2:46 pm

      spittinmad: Perhaps if “under god” was returned to the dustbin of history, a few less hard-left atheists would protest creche scenes? Or would that be more accurately stated as a few less atheists would be hard-left?
      =========

      The Pledge had not “under god” until 1954. The insertion was intended to “underline” that Capitalists (or the “right”) are religious, and Communists (or the “left”) are atheists.
      You continue to perpetuate the same wrong idea.

      • spittinmad permalink
        March 14, 2012 3:28 pm

        I am quite aware of the original pledge and it’s various iterations including when and why “under god” was inserted. That phrase was not there originally, the reasons for inserting it were marginal in 1954 and make even less sense today. Don’t see anything wrong there. Not seeing anything perpetual or wrong other than that phrase itself.

        I do think I was agreeing with Rick’s assertion that asking non-religious people to pledge “under god” is not civil. As I was lamenting some non-civil practices from the other extreme. Which I think made for a civil and balanced post. Moderate, even.

        I don’t understand what you might think is wrong. I did read your post about ‘faulty interpretations’ about which I don’t think I made any comment one way or another.

      • December 25, 2012 11:12 pm

        Well, Bill, what can I say. If you read his biography, you’ll see that Brent Corrigan is aaltculy only a stage name for him. I forget his real last name, but his first name is Shane, I believe. His last name is an Irish name, though. My name really is Corrigan and, when you add Patrick David to the beginning of that, you have my grandfather’s name as well as mine, who I was named after. Yes, Brent is from Seattle, I believe, and I’m old enough to be his father. But I like his webpage and movie stuff. If he ever comes to Chicago, (he won’t need me to put him up I’d probably could use a loan from him I would like to see his show live.

  13. Lynn permalink
    October 20, 2013 11:33 am

    One of the greatest things about our country I believe is our freedom of religion. This can only be perpetuated by our seperation of church and state. Many new immigrants I have talked to came to the United States for that very reason. They were escaping religious persecution in their own countries, which is what I see happening if we do not keep the two seperate. I for one do not want the government telling me when and where and to whom I should worship. Christians should think about this seriously before they take a stance to abolosih seperation of church and state.

  14. dave bowen permalink
    December 26, 2013 1:30 pm

    Separation of church and state is vital to a free society.The founding fathers were for the most part,deists. Meaning a God that did not interfere in the affairs of men. What I find even more dangerous than government getting into religion,is politicians using religion to make political decisions. As much as government has no business in religion,religion has no business involving itself in politics. Anyone who wears their religion on their sleeve like that,and passes judgement on others based on their beliefs,cannot be trusted

  15. Anonymous permalink
    April 8, 2014 9:57 pm

    to the author: dude no one cares that you got the 99th percentile in whatever low validity intelligence measure you took. Separation of church and state was a phrase coined by Jefferson shortly after he was elected president. While campaigning he faced critique of his leadership abilities based on his lack of orthodox religious faith. America had the chance to be free of the abomination of religion. If you do not feel religion is an abomination you belong to the privileged few who have not been harmed by irrationality.

  16. Anonymous permalink
    June 26, 2014 3:34 am

    The first amendment was intended to protect religion, not to separate it from the state, the restriction is to keep the various denominations from taking over the government and changing the laws to conform with their sect. NOT to take the religion out of the state and create a heathen nation…Basic Mosaic moral values ARE both religious and secular laws…remember in the Bible, Moses appointed people to be rulers and judges, who were probably voted into power by the people of their tribes, our government was modeled after the Mosaic Law. The liberals act like there is no such thing as homosexual religions…are they not then trying to promote their Canaanite religious immorality on the government and the people by promoting it?

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