The Biggest Myth in America

 “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Seems pretty simple, right?

Let’s break it down.

 “Congress:” the legislative body that makes the laws our country follows.

“Shall make no law:” that’s pretty self-explanatory.

“Respecting an establishment of religion,” this is where it gets a bit tricky.

 This is what we refer to as the “Establishment Clause.” What it means is that we basically cannot have a national religion as established by Congress.

“Nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof:” no laws can be made that infringe upon the rights of believers to exercise their beliefs.

So if the First Amendment is that simple. Why is there so much controversy surrounding it? To clarify this, one must read the amendment again and recognize that nowhere does it say anything about “separation of church and state.” In fact this phrase does not appear in an official United States Document until Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black coined it as “official policy” in the 1947 case of Everson vs. Board of Education of Ewing Township. The question in debate during this case was whether state of New Jersey could pay for the transportation of students to parochial schools.

Many people cite Thomas Jefferson for the idea of “separation of church and state,” and while it is true that he wrote those words, it was in a personal letter which was sent to the Danbury Baptists to assure them that the federal government would not keep them from practicing their religion. Jefferson borrowed the phrase from a well-known sermon by Baptist minister and founder of Rhode Island Roger Williams. In this sermon, Williams depicts the church as a garden, the outside world as the wilderness and the “wall” as a mechanism used to protect the church from the encroaching wilderness. The Founding Fathers agreed with this interpretation, and that was the intent of the separation clause-to keep the government out of religion, not the other way around.

Does anyone honestly think that the Founding Fathers, most of whom were practicing Christians, meant to deny the rights of students to public prayer, the banning of the Bible from school libraries, forbid the mentioning of God in the Pledge of Allegiance, prohibit the display of the Ten Commandments (which many of our laws are based on), the outlawing of a banner that read “God Bless America” after the 9/11 attacks or not allowing a nativity scene to be put up at Christmas? How are any of these things establishing a national religion? They are not!

“The metaphor of a wall of separation is bad history and worse law. It has made a positive chaos out of court rulings. It should be explicitly abandoned,” Former Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist said. The commonly accepted idea of “separation of church and state” is a complete and utter myth.

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3 thoughts on “The Biggest Myth in America

  1. 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, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. That letter, though, played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Indeed, the Court mentioned it only in passing after stating its conclusion based on a lengthy and detailed discussion (encompassing many pages and many footnotes) of the historical context in which the First Amendment was developed. The metaphor “separation of church and state” was but a handy catch phrase to describe the upshot of its conclusion. The Court’s reading of the First Amendment in this regard was unanimous; all nine Justices agreed on that much, but split 5-4 on whether the Amendment precludes states from paying for transportation of students to religious schools.

    Perhaps even more than Thomas 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.

    You are right to note that many of the founding fathers and others of their time were much influenced by religion, including various forms of Christianity as well as deism. Whatever the religions of the various founders, though, they drafted a Constitution that plainly establishes a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity) and says nothing substantive of god(s) or religion except in the First Amendment where the point is to confirm that each person enjoys religious liberty and that the government is not to take steps to establish religion and another provision precluding any religious test for public office. This is entirely consistent with the fact that some founders professed their religiosity and their desire that Christianity remain the dominant religious influence in American society. Why? Because religious people who would like to see their religion flourish in society may well believe that separating religion and government will serve that end and, thus, in founding a government they may well intend to keep it separate from religion. It is entirely possible for thoroughly religious folk to found a secular government and keep it separate from religion, and indeed that is what the founders did.

    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.

  2. Making no law ‘respecting an establishment’ is not equivalent to ‘shall not establish,’ if you believe that the words have meaning as they were used.

    Respecting an establishment goes beyond merely establishing.

    You see, the verb is ‘respecting’ and the noun is ‘establishment of religion.’ We can see this is plainly the case when compared to the other clauses, where the verbs are ‘prohibiting’ and ‘abridging.’

    If the authors meant ‘shall make no laws establishing a religion,’ then they would have written just that. Therefore, we must conclude that ‘respecting’ must mean more than establishing. Or, we could take it to mean less than establishing, but I don’t think such an argument would be reasonable.

    So, yes, people honestly do think that the founders meant what they said. And that Jefferson’s separation phrase is a perfectly wonderful and succinct summary of the legal theory.

  3. Where exactly did you hear that the Founding Fathers were “practising Christians”?

    According to my research, the majority of the Founding Fathers were deists.

    Also, to qualify the phrase “practising Christian”, I can only assume that you mean “living in a way that is Christ-like” above and beyond mere belief in Christ, which would qualify a non-practising Christian. I never knew the Founding Fathers personally, but if they acted anything like Jesus Christ, they would have been the last to do so in American political history.

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