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Separation of Church & State

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other 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 and State."

--Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association, January 1, 1802

Those aligned with the religious right frequently claim that the United States is a "Christian country" and has been since its beginnings.  Many claim that the "wall of separation between church and state" is a modern myth and that the idea simply didn't exist in the early days of our country.  Others, acknowledging the quote above, make the rather absurd claim that the "wall" was unidirectional - intended to keep the state out of matters of the church, but not to keep the church out of matters of the state.

It is true that many of the "founding fathers" of our country were very religious members of Christian denominations, and there certainly were differences of opinion among them.  But it is clear that those who actually drafted the Constitution - including Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and one of the primary supporters of the Bill of Rights - understood the importance of keeping government out of religion and religion out of government.

"The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machinery of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man."

--Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Jeremiah Moor, Aug. 14, 1800

There is no mention of "Christianity" or "God" in the U.S. Constitution. This was not an oversight by the founding fathers, but a decision made after a great deal of debate and deliberation.  Instead, they included in the First Amendment to the Constitution language enshrining the idea of church / state separation:  "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  This language is commonly referred to as the Establishment Clause.

The words "under God" were not added to the pledge of allegiance until 1954. And "In God We Trust" was not established by Congress as a national motto until 1956.  These actions were a reflection of the cold war hysteria of the time, and the vilification of "godless communists."  (Unfortunately, our courts have not yet found the courage to strike down these acts of Congress for being the clear violations of the Establishment Clause that they are).  But despite these facts, today's right wing fundamentalist Christians try to revise history to convince people that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  That is simply a lie.

"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty Gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

--Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781

So why are conservative Christians trying to turn the United States into a Christian theocracy?  Why do they want the ten commandments posted in public schools and courthouses?  Why do they want to degrade science education by teaching mythological creationist stories in place of scientifically accepted explanations of human evolution?  Why do they want to impose Christian prayer during public events?  Well, I can't pretend to understand the motivations of those with whom I so strongly disagree.  But I suppose that they simply want to impose their viewpoint upon everyone, and they want to use the power of government support to do it in a more coercive manner.  I guess it's only natural that if you have a strong religious belief, you would want others to believe the same.  But it is not the roll of government to establish any preference for one religious belief over another.  Instead, government must stay neutral in matters of religion, and leave all citizens to believe in whatever god they choose, or to not believe in a god at all. 

"Your sect, by its sufferings, has furnished a remarkable proof of the universal spirit of religious intolerance inherent in every sect, disclaimed by all while feeble, and practiced by all when in power. Our laws have applied the only antidote to the vice, protecting our religious as they do our civil rights, by putting all men on an equal footing."

--Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Mordecai M. Noah, May 28, 1818

The reasons why the separation of church and state is important today are the same as why it was important when the Bill of Rights was drafted.  Religious belief seems to be unique in the level of passion and intolerance it can engender.  The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch trials, and numerous instances of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism are examples of state sponsored religions being used throughout history to justify the murder of people and destruction of cultures and societies that did not share the religious belief.  Less extreme forms of oppression and intolerance in the name of religion are commonplace, and should not be given the added weight of governmental authority.

On a less violent level, a majority that shares a religious belief can and will try to impose that belief on others.  Especially for school-aged children, the pressure to fit in is very strong.  And if the coercive power of government is added to the mix, with teachers, principles and other government officials endorsing a religious belief, the tensions and pressures imposed upon these children that do not share that belief can become overwhelming.  If any place should be made a haven from the majority imposition of religious belief upon a minority, it is our public schools. 

"Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a censor morum over such other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites."

--Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781

The United States is not a great nation because it is based on religious belief. It is a great nation in part because it is based on the principal that religious belief should be neither endorsed nor hindered by our government. The United States is a great nation because our Constitution gives us the right to believe in a god or not believe in a god without government interference or influence.


Please note that the views expressed in these pages are mine, and mine alone.  They do not necessarily reflect the views other members of my family, past or present employers, or any other person or group with which I have been affiliated.
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Last Updated 22 July 2005
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