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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Myth #8: The Constitution Guarantees the Separation of Church and State


This is the Eighth Myth in the series: 25 Myths of the U.S. Constitution.

Note: These articles later were updated and combined into my first book: 25 Myths of the United States Constitution.

By Douglas V. Gibbs

From the start, in America, when it came to religion, there were three things that set this nation apart from the other nations of the world. First, there was no established church, at least at the federal level. Second, the church and state enjoyed a symbiotic relationship where one did not control the other. Third, there was a separation of church and state that existed, not because the government forced religion out of the picture, but because the clergy restrained the church from involving itself in federal matters. When Alexis de Tocqueville observed this phenomenon (and wrote about it in "Democracy in America"), he was amazed at how well the arrangement between the church and state worked, and how unlike Europe it was.

In some European countries the church still exerted great control over the government, be it the Catholic Church in Spain, or the Church of England in Britain (where the king was also head of the church).

In Tocqueville's native France, the French Revolution had produced a secular system of the opposite extreme. Seeking to throw off the shackles of established religion, the French eliminated any and all influence of the church. What emerged was a society they believed to be based on "reason," and pluralistic attitudes, but also a system void of social morals and virtuous political standards.

What Tocqueville observed in America was something entirely different from anything established in the Old World. The governmental leaders where deeply religious men who prayed before each session of Congress. They asked God for wisdom, and to guide their hands as they embarked on their leadership roles. Yet, these men of faith did not take marching orders from the church. Meanwhile, the pastors of America preached on the issues, influencing the political landscape through popular opinion, while restraining from exerting any direct control over government. America was free from the bonds of aristocracy and theocracy. Government and religion existed together, influencing each other, without necessarily controlling each other.

Freedom of religion was an important concept to the early settlers in America. In the northern colonies, the specific reason for colonization was to escape the persecution against Christians that refused to be members of the Church of England. King Henry VIII, after the pope rejected his request for a divorce, and claiming to be following in the footsteps of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, established the Church of England, and proclaimed himself as the supreme head of the new church. While keeping with Catholic traditions during church services, the Church of England broke all ties with the Vatican. In 1559, the English Act of Uniformity went so far as to make it illegal not to attend official Church of England services, with a fine imposed for each missed Sunday and holy day. Penalties for having unofficial services included arrest, and larger fines.

During the early 1600s, King James I enforced conformity to the Church of England, punishing any dissenters. In 1629, King Charles I initiated aggressive policies against the Puritans, which led to the Puritan Revolution in England, and an influx of new Puritan settlers in the English colonies.

The early northern colonies in the New World were theocracies, but as the settlers moved farther into the frontier to the west, the hold over the colonists by the church splintered. New strains of Protestantism emerged in the frontier lands. In the original colonies the Puritan churches divided and subdivided as well. The Christian founding of these settlements, and other settlements by other religions, is undeniable. The diversity of the religious beliefs and practices by the early colonists is also undeniable.

The frame of reference for the writers of the Constitution, and for those supporting the Bill of Rights, was the government established Church of England, and the various experiences of the settlers regarding religious struggles in the colonies. Therefore, the first part of the First Amendment addresses the important issue of religion. The Founding Fathers recognized the need for the United States of America to be a virtuous country, while also recognizing the dangers of a church greatly influenced by a centralized governmental system. In Britain, there was no separation between powers of the king and the church. The problem, the Founding Fathers reasoned, was the establishment of a State Church. Therefore, to protect the governmental system from the influence of religion, and to protect the church from the influence of the federal government, the founders determined that the federal government could not establish a state religion.

In the First Amendment, after disallowing Congress from making any law that would establish a religion, the founders also added text that was specifically designed to protect the church from the government by instructing government to not prohibit the free exercise of religion.

In today's society, there exists the belief in a concept known as "The Separation of Church and State." The concept has determined that the church is somehow the enemy, and that any mention of God in the same breath with the federal government is a no-no. When asked where the idea of separation of church and state is located in the Constitution, those that support such a philosophy will point towards the 1st Amendment, indicating that the concept of the separation of Church and State is implied.

There is no clause guaranteeing the separation of church and state in the Constitution. To understand how the belief in the concept of the separation of church and state developed, we must go back and discover the origination of the idea. To understand the truth, we must recognize the writings of the founders, as well as grasp the history of the colonies. One of the best ways to do this is to carefully read the writings of the Founding Fathers, including the series of letters between the federal government and the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut, culminating in the letters to Thomas Jefferson after he became President of the United States in 1800.

The colonies, as a collection of like-minded religious folk that wanted freedom for their religion (not necessarily the freedom of all religions, however), were theocracies. This practice of religious preference did not occur in all of the colonies. Pennsylvania, though dominated by Quakers, welcomed all religions. Rhode Island also had no established church. Rhode Island was founded in 1636, based on the principle of religious liberty, and took in folks who were trying to escape the religious persecution of the other colonies.

In Jamestown, in 1610, Dales Law mandated the Jamestown colonists attend Anglican worship. The law went so far as to have provisions against criticism of the church. Violation of Dales Law could even lead to death. The Puritan Colonies to the north had similar laws, even setting up their governments in accordance with Puritan Law. Connecticut was one of those Puritan Colonies, and in 1639 the colony enacted "The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut." The law set Connecticut up as a theocracy, disallowing non-Puritans from holding office. The government was the church, and the church was the government.

The Puritan dominated landscape in Connecticut was considered to be tyrannical by a small group of Baptists in Danbury. The Danbury Baptists in Connecticut were tired of being treated like second class citizens.

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, and with James Madison's assistance, finally got it enacted into law in 1786. So after letters to President Adams resulted in no assistance from the new federal government, the Danbury Baptists were excited about Jefferson winning the presidential election in 1800. Finally, the Danbury Baptists reasoned, when considering Jefferson's involvement in the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, the Danbury Baptists finally had someone in office that would help them in their plight for religious freedoms in Connecticut.

The Danbury Baptists wrote to Jefferson to congratulate him for his win, and to appeal to him for help. Thomas Jefferson responded with a letter that carries the line, "a wall of separation between church and state," which has become the source from which the infamous concept of Separation of Church and State was eventually derived from.

The Founding Fathers desired that Americans be free to worship as they wished, without being compelled by government through an established religion. The key, however, is that they not only did not want the federal government compelling a person how to worship through laws regarding religion, but that the government shall not “prohibit the free exercise thereof.”

Thomas Jefferson, as indicated in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, and his other writings, was against the federal government establishing a “State Church.” However, he also believed that men should be free to exercise their religion as they deem fit, and not be forced to follow a government mandate that may prohibit religion.

The Danbury Baptists were concerned over local religious freedoms. Jefferson was clear in his letter to the Baptists that the federal government could not mandate anything in regards to religion. It is a State issue, and the Danbury Baptists needed to address the issue themselves with the Puritans of Connecticut. Jefferson’s reference to a wall of separation was an explanation that the federal government cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion for any reason, including on public grounds, but if a state was to prohibit the free exercise of religion, or establish a state church, it was an issue that must be resolved at the state level.

The Founding Fathers were problem solvers, and they expected the people to be problem solvers at the state level as well. It was not the role of the federal government to dictate to the states regarding any issue, especially since the very existence of the federal government was due to the states granting the federal government its few powers in the first place. The federal government's only involvement in religion is specifically detailed in the First Amendment. Simply put, the Congress can make no law establishing a religion, and the Congress can make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Otherwise, any legislation regarding religion must be established by the state legislatures. Therefore, there is no concept of the separation of church and state indicated anywhere in the Constitution.

The federal government cannot disallow a group of kids from praying on the steps of the Supreme Court, disallow prayer in schools, nor show any preferential treatment towards any religion over another by passing any legislation regarding religion.

One final thought. Each session of Congress begins with a prayer, a practice that has been in place since the very beginning over two hundred years ago. The idea to have prayer before each session of Congress was influenced by Benjamin Franklin's recommendation that the Constitutional Convention engage in a prayer before each session of the convention, as noted by James Madison's notes on the debates during the Constitutional Convention. If the Founding Fathers believed in the separation of church and state in the manner defined by today's political environment, then why would the recommendation for prayer even be considered in the first place?

As many of the Founding Fathers repeatedly indicated in their writings, the forging of America was due to divine providence. Benjamin Franklin went so far to even write, "I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth - that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?"

-- Political Pistachio Conservative News and Commentary

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