Why do we have separation of church and state?
Many of the American Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by the European Enlightenment – a time of paradigm shift in Western thought that replaced government by the Divine Right of Kings with government by the consent of the governed and replaced supernatural explanations of how our universe works with natural ones.
Much of this thinking was triggered by the scientific revolution of the 17th century – Galileo and Isaac Newton and the contributions of social and political thinkers such as John Locke and David Hume. Since many early colonists came to America to escape the control of the Church of England, this issue was very clear to those who framed our Constitution.
How can we determine the thoughts and intents of our founders? Rather than attempt to read their long-expired minds or take their quotes perhaps out of context, all we need to do is examine the document they left us as the “law of the land” – the U.S. Constitution as amended over time.
In our Constitution, the word “God” does not appear anywhere and the word “religion” only twice – both times in a careful usage that broadly guarantees freedom of conscience. Article VI says, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” and the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”
Our Constitution contains no language declaring Christianity to be the preferred religion. The secular nature of the Constitution bothered some early religious leaders, who railed against it from the pulpit. Clearly, America was not established as an officially “Christian nation.”
Additional evidence supporting this is found in an interesting – and little known – document called the Treaty of Tripoli, which was drafted during the Washington administration, approved by Congress and signed by President John Adams. Article XI of this treaty states: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion….” Anyone who claims that the United States was founded as a “Christian Nation” might read this document, the original version of which is in the Library of Congress.
The more important provision is in our Bill of Rights. Language in the First Amendment specifically prohibits any “establishment” of religion. James Madison, who helped draft the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, interpreted this language to mean far more than merely barring the creation of a national church.
Anyone can interpret the Constitution, but the only interpretation that really counts is that of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts. These courts have consistently ruled that government cannot show favoritism to any particular religion, give tax aid to religion or require people to take part in religious exercises.
Since the phrases “establishment of religion” and “free exercise of religion” sound legalistic and are not easily understood in popular language, we use the term “separation of church and state” to express the same idea. Thomas Jefferson, Madison and other early political and religious leaders used that phrase to describe the First Amendment.
The separation principle is not anti-religious. (Indeed, clergy were among the strongest supporters of church-state separation in the post-revolutionary period, and many remain so today.) It merely bars any government endorsement or promotion of any specific religion. It leaves the promotion of faith where it belongs – in the hands of our religious community.
A sign erected by government in front of a taxpayer-funded city hall that reads “Remember Christ is in Christmas” amounts to government promotion of religion and violates the Constitution. A private citizen or house of worship is free to exercise sectarian religious expression. A government body is not.