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“Why the Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church and State”
A Roman Catholic priest, Reverend David K. O’Rourke, said, “Every religious group in the United States is a minority group. Some may be unhappy with this status and wish they had official standing. I am not unhappy with it. The Catholic Church, the largest of these minorities, has prospered greatly in this country where we separate church and state.”
The Religious Right is still spreading misinformation about church-state separation and Robert Boston’s book debunks it. This book uses everyday language to explain why the Religious Right is wrong about separation of church and state. According to Boston, “We have a vibrant, multifaith religious society that, with the exception of a few fundamentalist Muslim states, is admired all over the globe. We have a degree of interfaith harmony unmatched in the world. Our government is legally secular, but our culture accommodates and welcomes a variety of religious voices. New faiths take root here without fear...
“Americans remain greatly interested in religion and things spiritual—unlike their counterparts in Western Europe, where religion is often state subsidized but of little interest to most people....Children are no longer forced to pray in school or read from religious texts against their will, yet they are free to engage in truly voluntary religious worship whenever they feel the need. The important task of imparting religious and philosophical training to youngsters is left where it always belonged—with each child’s parents or guardians...Some European nations have passed so-called anticult laws aimed at curbing the rights of unpopular new religions. Such laws would not be acceptable in the United States or permitted under the First Amendment.
“In a multifaith society such as the United States,” observes Boston, “a type of religious marketplace does exist. Religious groups that aggressively seek converts, such as the Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, are well aware that people in the United States are able and even willing to change their religious beliefs. To these groups, it’s well worth it to enter the marketplace and advertise their goods. Lots of people might buy them...
“Because the U.S. government is secular, religious groups are left to contend for members based solely on their own initiative. They create a free marketplace of religion that spurs competition and a vigorous religious life. This explains why the United States, which maintains church-state separation, retains a high degree of religiosity among its people.
“The more sophisticated and perceptive believers realize that the separation principle is a boon to their faith,” notes Boston. “They see danger in any attempt by government to decide which religion is true and which is false. They know that a faith that is in favor with the government today can be out of favor tomorrow. These believers are thankful for the free marketplace of religion and the secular state that makes it possible. They understand that the way to get new members is through persuasion, not government aid.”
In his book, Robert Boston traces the origins of church-state separation from the Reformation through the American colonial period to the present day. Readers may be surprised to learn that some of the religious leaders of the colonial period, such as Roger Williams, favored religious freedom. “Williams was an unusual character for his times,” writes Boston. “A devout Christian, he was absolutely convinced that his views on religion were correct and that any rational being would in time come around and agree with him once the facts were laid bare. But Williams insisted with equal force that the state should have no business in enforcing orthodoxy. A person’s understanding of religion and truth, Williams insisted, must come from within. He argued for complete freedom of conscience, a concept he called ‘soul liberty.’
In 1635, Williams and his followers were expelled from Massachusetts. They fled south to what is today Rhode Island, where he founded the city of Providence. According to Boston, Williams, “announced that all who chose to live there would enjoy full religious and political freedom. Williams’ proclamation proved the sincerity of his beliefs, as he soon had to suffer many religious views he personally found distasteful. For example, Williams detested Quakers and often blasted them in his writings. Yet in Rhode Island, Quakers worshipped unmolested, at least during the years of Williams’ oversight.
“It was Williams who coined the phrase that may have been the grandfather to Thomas Jefferson’s famous ‘wall of separation’ between church and state metaphor. In his 1644 treatise, ‘The Bloody Tenet of Persecution, for cause of Conscience,’ Williams warned against opening ‘a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.’ A decent distance between church and state, he maintained, would keep the purity of the church intact and safe from the corrupting influence of government.”
Similarly, Pastor John Leland “was dismayed to see dissenting preachers in jail for their religious views. Leland’s writings echo some of the comments made by Jefferson. Leland, defending freedom of conscience, wrote, ‘Government should protect every man in thinking, and speaking freely, and that one does not abuse another...all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, pagans and Christians.’ On another occasion, Leland wrote in opposition to the idea that holders of public office should have to believe certain things about religion before they could even run. Such ‘religious tests’ were common in many colonies. Wrote Leland, ‘If a man merits the confidence of his neighbors...let him worship one God, twenty gods, or no god—be he Jew, Turk, Pagan, or Infidel, he is eligible to any office in the state.
“Unlike Jefferson, who was a rationalist and something of a religious skeptic,” continues Boston, “Leland’s support for church-state separation was anchored in his theological views. In 1790 he wrote, ‘The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever...If all the souls in a government were saints of God, should they be formed into a society by law, that society could not be a Gospel Church, but a creature of the state.’
“Clergy in other states also played a pivotal role in the struggle to establish the separation of church and state in America. In Massachusetts, Pastor Isaac Backus, a Baptist minister, went so far as to refuse to pay a church tax and was arrested. In 1774 he wrote a document blasting the tax, which asserted in part, ‘Religion is a concern between God and the soul with which no human authority can intermeddle.’”
In 1787 when the framers excluded all mention of God from the Constitution, they were widely denounced as immoral and the document was denounced as godless, which is precisely what it is. Opponents of the Constitution challenged ratifying conventions in nearly every state, calling attention to Article VI, Section 3: “No religious test shall be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
An anti-federalist in North Carolina wrote: “The exclusion of religious tests is by many thought dangerous and impolitic. Pagans, Deists and Mohammedans might obtain office among us.” Amos Singletary of Massachussetts, one of the most outspoken critics of the Constitution, said that he “hoped to see Christians (in power), yet by the Constitution, a papist or an infidel was as eligible as they.”
Luther Martin, a Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 wrote that “there were some members so unfashionable as to think that a belief in the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that in a Christian country, it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.” Martin’s report shows that a “Christian nation” faction had its say during the convention, and that its views were consciously rejected.
The United States Constitution is a completely secular political document. It begins “We the people,” and contains no mention of “God,” “Jesus,” or “Christianity.” Its only references to religion are exclusionary, such as the “no religious test” clause (Article VI), and “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (First Amendment)
The presidential oath of office, the only oath detailed in the Constitution, does not contain the phrase “so help me God” or any requirement to swear on a Bible (Article II, Section 1). The words “under God” did not appear in the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954, when Congress, under McCarthyism, inserted them. Similarly, “In God we Trust” was absent from paper currency before 1956, though it did appear on some coins. The original U.S. motto, written by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, is “E Pluribus Unum” (“Of Many, One”) celebrating plurality and diversity.
In 1797, America made a treaty with Tripoli, declaring that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” This reassurance to Islam was written under Washington’s presidency and approved by the Senate under John Adams.
We are not governed by the Declaration of Independence. Its purpose was to “dissolve the political bonds,” not to set up a religious nation. Its authority was based upon the idea that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” which is contrary to the biblical concept of rule by divine authority. The Declaration deals with laws, taxation, representation, war, immigration, etc., and doesn’t discuss religion at all. The references to “Nature’s God,” “Creator,” and “Divine Providence” in the Declaration do not endorse Christianity. Its author, Thomas Jefferson, was a Deist, opposed to Christianity and the supernatural.
“Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. However, Jefferson admitted, “In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man and that other parts are the fabric of very inferior minds...” It was Thomas Jefferson who established the separation of church and state. Jefferson was deeply suspicious of religion and of clergy wielding political power.
Jefferson helped create the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, incurring the wrath of Christians by his fervent defense of toleration of atheists: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are only injurious to others. But it does no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Jefferson advocated a “wall of separation” between church and state not to protect the church from government intrusion, but to preserve the freedom of the people:
“I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught;” he observed, “but I hold in the most profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and established by kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of mankind.”
Jefferson and the founding fathers were products of the Age of Enlightenment. Their world view was based upon Deism, secularism, and rationalism. “The priests of the
different religious sects dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight,” wrote Jefferson. “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his Father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter...we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this...”
As late as 1820, Jefferson was convinced everyone in the United States would die a Unitarian. Jefferson, Madison and Paine’s writings indicate that America was never intended to be a Christian theocracy. “I have sworn upon the altar of God,” wrote Jefferson, “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson wrote: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Similarly, in an 1824 letter to John Cartwright, Jefferson expressed anger at judges who had based rulings on their belief that Christianity is part of the common law. Cartwright had written a book critical of these judges, and Jefferson was glad to see it. Observed Jefferson, “The proof of the contrary, which you have produced, is controvertible; to wit, that the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced, or knew that such a character had ever existed.” Jefferson challenged “the best-read lawyer to produce another script of authority for this judicial forgery” and concluded, “What a conspiracy this, between Church and State!”
As president, Jefferson put his “wall of separation” theory into practice. He refused to issue proclamations calling for days of prayer and fasting, insisting that they violate the First Amendment. As early as 1779, Jefferson proposed a bill before the Virginia legislature that would have established a series of elementary schools to teach the basics—reading, writing, and arithmetic. Jefferson even suggested that “no religious reading, instruction, or exercise shall be prescribed or practiced, inconsistent with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination.” Jefferson did not regard public schools as the proper agent to form children’s religious views.
As president, James Madison also put his separationist philosophy into action. He vetoed two bills he believed would violate church-state separation. The first was an act incorporating the Episcopal Church in the District of Columbia that gave the church the authority to care for the poor. The second was a proposed land grant to a Baptist church in Mississippi. Had Madison, the father of the Constitution, believed that all the First Amendment was intended to do was bar setting up a state church, he would have approved these bills. Instead, he vetoed both, and in his veto messages to Congress explicitly stated that he was rejecting the bills because they violated the First Amendment.
Later in his life, James Madison came out against state-paid chaplains, writing, “The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.” He also concluded that his calling for days of prayer and fasting during his presidency had been unconstitutional. In an 1819 letter to Robert Walsh, Madison wrote, “the number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state.” In an undated essay called the “Detached Memoranda,” written in the early 1800s, Madison wrote, “Strongly guarded...is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States.”
In 1833 Madison responded to a letter sent to him by Jasper Adams. Adams had written a pamphlet titled “The Relations of Christianity to Civil Government in the United States,” which tried to prove that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. Madison wrote back: “In the papal system, government and religion are in a manner consolidated, and that is found to be the worst of government.”
Madison, like Jefferson, was confident that separation of church and state would protect both the institutions of government and religion. Late in his life, Madison wrote to a Lutheran minister about this, declaring, “A due distinction...between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God, best promotes the discharge of both obligations...A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.”
In the early part of the 19th century, a general understanding existed that the government should not promote religion, or favor one religion over another. In 1825, Congress passed legislation requiring post offices to handle mail on Sundays. Many people protested, arguing that this violated the Christian Sabbath. Congress debated the matter for a few years before deciding in 1829 to retain Sunday mail handling. Senator Richard Johnson of Kentucky wrote that the government had no business favoring Sunday as a state-mandated day of rest:
“It is not the legitimate province of the Legislature to determine what religion is true, or what is false,” Johnson observed. “Our Government is a civil and not a religious institution. Our Constitution recognizes in every person the right to choose his own religion, and to enjoy it freely, without molestation. Whatever may be the religious sentiments of citizens, and however variant, they are alike entitled to protection from the Government, so long as they do not invade the rights of others...They (Sunday mail handling opponents) appear, in many instances, to lay it down as an axiom, that the practice is a violation of the law of God. Should Congress, in their legislative capacity, adopt the sentiment, it would establish the principle that the Legislature is a proper tribunal to determine what are the laws of God. It would involve a legislative decision in a religious controversy, and on a point in which good citizens may honestly differ in opinion, without disturbing the peace of society, or endangering its liberties. If this principle is introduced, it will be impossible to define its bounds.
“Among all the religious persecutions with which almost every page of modern history is stained, no victim ever suffered but for violation of what Government denominated the law of God. To prevent a similar train of evils in this country, the Constitution has wisely withheld from our Government the power of defining the divine law.”
Robert Boston’s book also provides a look at contemporary church-state issues, with special emphasis on what the Supreme Court has really said about controversies like school prayer, government aid to religion, and religious free exercise. Appendices that follow debunk common religious right myths about church-state separation and reproduce two key documents in church-state history: Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists and James Madison’s 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.”
Filled with historical facts and quotes, this is the finest book on church-state separation ever written. This book is a must-read for members of religious minorities everywhere.
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