Unpacking the ‘Separation of Church and State’ Distortion
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent string of pro-religious liberty decisions, including striking down a law that excluded religious schools in Maine from participating in a school voucher program and upholding the right to public prayer, many are claiming that by ruling in favor of religious organizations and individuals, the current Supreme Court is destroying the so-called constitutional idea of “separation of church and state.”
According to this line of reasoning, the state is part of the public square where religious beliefs are not to be expressed. Supposedly, if people of faith want to participate in the public square and engage in politics, they must leave their beliefs and convictions at the door.
However, contrary to popular belief, the phrase “separation of church and state” is found nowhere in our nation’s founding documents. Nor is the belief that people of faith should be excluded from engaging in the public square according to their convictions, the intended meaning of the First Amendment. The fact that so many people claim otherwise reveals the failure of many citizens to read our founding documents or to understand the historical context of America’s founding.
The phrase “separation of church and state” was first originated by Thomas Jefferson in a letter he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The Danbury Baptists had first reached out to Jefferson to voice their concern that religious liberty be protected. Jefferson, in response to their concern, assures them of his agreement with the first amendment that the government should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and that this amendment builds “a wall of separation between Church and State.” Clearly, this “wall of separation” was to protect the church from the state, not the state from the church.
The American colonists primarily represented a variety of different Christian denominations. Some were members of the Church of England (Anglican). Some, like the Pilgrims, were Puritans who wanted to separate from the Church of England. Others were Baptists, Quakers, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Catholics, and Methodists. Many of them left England, where all people were required to be members of the Church of England, for the sole purpose of seeking religious liberty.
After being English citizens where there was a state-established religion and church that all citizens were required to adhere to, America’s Founders wanted to prevent the federal government from establishing a particular Christian denomination as the country’s official religion. They wanted to prevent the federal government from showing preference to one Christian denomination over another and they didn’t want the federal government to infringe upon people’s right to exercise their particular Christian sect’s religious beliefs and doctrinal differences.
Enter the First Amendment.
In its proper context, the purpose of the First Amendment was not to limit public religious activity but rather to limit the government’s ability to establish a national religion or show preferential treatment towards one religion over another. Today, this idea of lack of favoritism has been so twisted that now “separation of church and state” is heralded to mean that the state must show favoritism towards the nonreligious at the expense of the religious. If the First Amendment were a pendulum, our postmodern culture has swung it so far in favor of secularism that those hostile to religious expression yield it as a weapon against people of faith to silence them and force them from the public square.
The push we see in our culture today to exclude Christians from mainstream culture and restrict their political engagement was not what our Founders had in mind when they drafted and ratified the Bill of Rights. As former Chief Justice William Rehnquist stated in his dissenting opinion in Wallace v. Jaffree, the phrase “separation of church and state” is a “misleading metaphor.” It has warped many people’s view of the First Amendment from what the Founders intended. As Rehnquist argued, it is we, not our Founders, who have strayed from the intended meaning of the First Amendment.
Claire Gatzke is a development operations associate at Family Research Council.
Claire Gatzke is a Development Operations Associate at Family Research Council.