Separation of Church and State

Whenever people talk about morality in relation to government, someone always seems ready to ask, “What about separation of Church and State?”

“After all,” the argument goes, “that’s what the First Amendment is all about, isn’t it?”

The First Amendment

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,”

Absent are the words ‘separation,’ ‘church,’ and ‘state’

The myth that the First Amendment separates church and state has grown to such ridiculous proportions that it must be debunked before it contributes further to the moral breakdown of our country. 

In his farewell speech, our first president said, “Of all the dispostitions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.”

What does it mean?

If the first amendment doesn’t require the separation of church and state, what is the primary concern it addresses? 

“Clearly, the amendment prohibits congress from establishing a national morality. The real question is, does the amendment require absolute separation between government and religion to the point that everything public must be sanitized of any reference to God? That’s what the courts have led most people to believe over the past fifty years, but history doesn’t support this now popular view. The founders wanted to guarantee freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. If the first amendment guaranteed freedom from religion, it would also require freedom from speech, from assembly, and from the press.” (Legislating Morality: Is it wise? Is it Legal? Is it possible?, Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek).

Think about it 

“There is no way of purging from human beings an understanding of right and wrong, of purging from common life a discourse about right and wrong. Once we think we are in the presence of real wrongs, we think (for example) that it’s wrong for people to torture their infants, our next response is not, ‘Ah, therefore, let’s give them tax incentives to induce them to stop.’ No, we respond with a law that forbids them.”

“Once you understand that this is the nature of the enterprise of ruling and governing, it becomes a matter of whether you will address the questions of right and wrong or whether you simply try to divert the questions and talk about something else.” (Hadley Arkes, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose).

“In this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.” -Abraham Lincoln

Steve Cornell

This entry was posted in Democrats, First Amendment, Government, Law, Republican, Separation of Church and State and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Separation of Church and State

  1. J.D.F says:

    Freedom of expression, where religion is concerned, also means if religion is brought into the public realm, any and all religions should have equal access, opportunity, and expression. Would this be ok say in the public schools, in your opinion?

    • thinkpoint says:

      Abington v. Schempp, Associate Justice Tom Clark wrote:

      “[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

  2. J.D.F says:

    I understand the quote you supplied, but what about prayers, functions, and studying of other religious texts? AND in the context that you mean, I can appreciate the study of religious texts, but it would have to be comprehensive, in my opinion, and be of many religions not just one.

    • thinkpoint says:

      It would have to be decided whether it was the purpose of the school to provide these things. Certainly if they have a Christian club on campus, other faiths should be allowed to have their clubs also.

  3. J.D.F says:

    Agreed. As long as it is either all or nothing, I have no problem with allowing any group to have religious things in a public space. 🙂

  4. Doug Indeap says:

    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 [which, ironically, appears in the cartoon you display], 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 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.”

    In discussing issues of separation of church and state, it is critical to avoid the all-too-common mistake of conflating the “public square” with “government.” The principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. And in practice, there is plenty of religion out there in the public square; I see and hear of it daily on the street, on the radio, on the TV, on the internet, etc. The First Amendment’s “establishment” clause constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in their classrooms), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is acting in an official or private capacity in any given circumstance can be complex, recognizing the distinction is critical.

    Your effort to equate religion with morality and ethics is yet another large topic I’ll leave for another day. For now, suffice it to say that I do not subscribe to the idea.

    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.

    • J.D.F says:

      Very well said. Do you have a blog at all?

      • Doug Indeap says:

        J.D.F.,

        Thank you for the kind words. No, I don’t have a blog, as I don’t have the inclination to consistently commit the time and effort it takes to do justice to one. So, I just mouth off–occasionally at some length–on other people’s blogs.

    • thinkpoint says:

      Your point is well taken: In discussing issues of separation of church and state, it is critical to avoid the all-too-common mistake of conflating the “public square” with “government.”

      Yet as government takes control of more matters of common life, the lines become blurred between these two.

      In mentioning my “effort to equate religion with morality and ethics is yet another large topic I’ll leave for another day. For now, suffice it to say that I do not subscribe to the idea.”

      I am not interested in “equating” but in source question/s. I am especially concerned about this when it comes to lawmaking.

      You state: “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.”

      Should we add, “without concern that the government will try to restrain or silence our religious devotion”? Your emphasis seems to lean toward protecting government from religion not religion from government. Perhaps I am overly nuancing?

  5. Doug Indeap says:

    thinkpoint,

    You are right to note that many things have changed since the 18th century–one of which is that government is bigger and involved in more aspects of our lives than then. (Whether that is considered good or bad, necessary or not, etc., is another large topic all to itself.) Because the government is constitutionally constrained to refrain from promoting or otherwise taking steps toward establishing religion, as it becomes involved in various aspects of society, people may perceive or experience that, in part at least, as a withdrawal or removal of religion from those aspects. That’s one more reason, I suppose, to be circumspect in how and where we involve the government in our lives. It bears emphasizing, though, that while the government is so constrained, individuals are not. Individuals (when acting in their capacities as individuals, rather than in official capacities as agents of government) are free to exercise and express their religions publicly and privately.

    You are right to note as well that the government should not try to restrain or silence religious devotion. The often expressed distinction between protecting religion from government versus protecting government from religion is useful, I think, only to a point. In the end, they go hand in hand; freedom of religion ultimately depends on both I think.

    In this respect, the constitutional principle of separation of church and state also should be distinguished from how and why citizens vote. From the standpoint of constitutional law, citizens can vote however they want for whatever reasons they want; if they are motivated by religion, so be it. Apart from the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, I think a cultural or societal corollary has developed as well, largely out of a desire for social cohesion. Under this view, we are encouraged to engage in political dialogue (and ultimately vote) using universal or inclusive terms and concepts rather than sectarian ones.

    It is certainly understandable and to be expected that the values and views of the people, shaped in part by their religions, will be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires or calls for this; it is simply a natural outgrowth of the people’s expression of political will. To the extent that the people’s values and views change over time, it is understandable and to be expected that those changes will come to be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent this; indeed, just the opposite–the Constitution establishes a government designed to be responsive to the political will of the people.

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