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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Separation of Church and State according to the Founders

The First Amendment to the Constitution says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." This gets broken down into two areas. The first is the Establishment Clause, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.". Thomas Jefferson made sure the intent of this clause was well understood with his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. In this letter he stated very clearly that there was a "wall of separation between church and state," which led to the expression "Separation of church and state."  Thomas Jefferson didn't see himself as writing a minor, unimportant letter because he had it reviewed by Levi Lincoln, his attorney general, before he sent it. Jefferson even told Lincoln that he considered this letter to be a means of "sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets."

The second part of the amendment, the Free Exercise Clause", is what the Christians try to hang their hat on in regards to be allowed to do anything in regards to their religion. However, the courts have generally ruled that while most individual religious exercise is allowed, this does not prohibit the government from passing laws that impact certain religious practices. The first case to examine this clause was Reynolds v. United States. This was a case dealing with the prosecution of a polygamist. He tried to argue protection under the Free Exercise Clause, but the court ruled against him.

Jefferson's Danbury letter has been cited favorably by the Supreme Court many times. In its 1879 Reynolds v. U.S. decision the high court said Jefferson's observations "may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment."

Jefferson believed in the principle of church/state separation so much that he created political problems for himself. Unlike Presidents Washington, Adams, and all following presidents, Jefferson refused to issue proclamations calling for days of prayer and thanksgiving. It is not, as some charged, because he was an atheist or because he wanted others to abandon religion.

Instead, it was because he recognized that he was only president of the American people, not their pastor, priest or minister. He realized that he had absolutely no authority to lead other citizens in religious services or expressions of religious faith and worship.

While it is true the exact words separation of church and state do not appear in the Constitution, the concept is certainly there. It is similar to the idea of the Trinity being a concept in the bible, even though the word Trinity does not appear anywhere in the bible. And even more important than it just a concept, we have the founders who discussed this issue when the country was initially formed.

James Madison
(1751-1836; principal author, U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights; 4th U.S. President, 1809-1817

"The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries." -James Madison

Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute threepence only of his property for the support of any one establishment may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever? (James Madison, "A Memorial and Remonstrance," addressed to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1785; from George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations, Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, pp. 459-460. According to Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, pp. 39 ff., Madison's "Remonstrance" was instrumental in blocking the multiple establishment of all denominations of Christianity in Virginia.)

The only ultimate protection for religious liberty in a country like ours, Madison pointed out--echoing Jefferson;--is public opinion: a firm and pervading opinion that the First Amendment works. "Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance." (Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, p. 56. Madison's words, according to Gaustad, are from his letter of 10 July 1822 to Edward Livingston.)

At age eighty-one [therefore, in 1832?], both looking back at the American experience and looking forward with vision sharpened by practical experience, Madison summed up his views of church and state relations in a letter to a "Reverend Adams": "I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency of a usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded by an entire abstinence of the Government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, and protecting each sect against trespass on its legal rights by others." (Robert L. Maddox, Separation of Church and State: Guarantor of Religious Freedom, New York: Crossroad, 1987, p. 39.)

John Adams
(1735-1826; major leader at Constitutional Convention in 1787; 2nd U.S. President , 1797-1801)
We think ourselves possessed, or, at least, we boast that we are so, of liberty of conscience on all subjects, and of the right of free inquiry and private judgment in all cases, and yet how far are we from these exalted privileges in fact! There exists, I believe, throughout the whole Christian world, a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel. In England itself it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red-hot poker. In America it is not better; even in our own Massachusetts, which I believe, upon the whole, is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States, a law was made in the latter end of the last century, repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws, but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemers upon any book of the Old Testament or New. Now, what free inquiry, when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigating into the divine authority of those books? Who would run the risk of translating Dupuis? But I cannot enlarge upon this subject, though I have it much at heart. I think such laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind. Books that cannot bear examination, certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws. It is true, few persons appear desirous to put such laws in execution, and it is also true that some few persons are hardy enough to venture to depart from them. But as long as they continue in force as laws, the human mind must make an awkward and clumsy progress in its investigations. I wish they were repealed. The substance and essence of Christianity, as I understand it, is eternal and unchangeable, and will bear examination forever, but it has been mixed with extraneous ingredients, which I think will not bear examination, and they ought to be separated. Adieu. (John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, January 23, 1825. Adams was 90, Jefferson 81 at the time; both died on July 4th of the following year, on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. From Adrienne Koch, ed., The American Enlightenment: The Shaping of the American Experiment and a Free Society, New York: George Braziller, 1965, p. 234.)

"The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses."

Thomas Paine
(1737-1809; author of Common Sense; key American patriotic writer)

As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of government to protect all conscientious protesters thereof, and I know of no other business government has to do therewith. (Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776. As quoted by Leo Pfeffer, "The Establishment Clause: The Never-Ending Conflict," in Ronald C. White and Albright G. Zimmerman, An Unsettled Arena: Religion and the Bill of Rights, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990, p. 72.)

A few of the Other Leaders and Thinkers of the Revolutionary Era

"Does not the core of all this difficulty lie in this," Isaac Backus--a Separatist minister turned Baptist--asked rhetorically in replying to a detractor in 1768, "that the common people [justly] claim as good a right to judge and act for themselves in matters of religion as civil rulers or the learned clergy?" (James A. Henretta, The Evolution of American Society, 1700-1815: An Interdisciplinary Analysis, Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1973, p. 136.)

Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state not because they are beneath the interests of the state, but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state. (Isaac Backus, An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, 1773, as quoted by Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 7.)

That religion, or the duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience. (Patrick Henry, 1736-1799, American patriot and statesman, Virginia Bill of Rights, June 12, 1776. From Daniel B. Baker, ed., Political Quotations, Detroit: Gale Research, Inc., 1990, p. 189.)

For the civil authority to pretend to establish particular modes of faith and forms of worship, and to punish all that deviate from the standards which our superiors have set up, is attended with the most pernicious consequences to society. It cramps all free and rational inquiry, fills the world with hypocrites and superstitious bigots--nay, with infidels and skeptics; it exposes men of religion and conscience to the rage and malice of fiery, blind zealots, and dissolves every tender tie of human nature. And I cannot but look upon it as a peculiar blessing of Heaven that we live in a land where everyone can freely deliver his sentiments upon religious subjects, and have the privilege of worshipping God according to the dictates of his own conscience, without any molestation or disturbance--a privilege which I hope we shall ever keep up and strenuously maintain. (Samuel West, Dartmouth, MA, Election Sermon, 1776, as quoted by Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 103.)

The marvel of America's founders, even though nearly all of the new nation's citizens were not only Christian but Protestant, was that they possessed the foresight to avoid establishing a Christian or religious government and instead chose to create the first secular government in the world.
Regardless of the framers' private beliefs about God, it is more important to look at their public actions in crafting the legal foundation for the new republic... And here the your script goes awry, for it cannot explain why, if the founders intended to base the government on Christianity or monotheism, they failed to spell out their intentions in the Constitution itself. There was certainly ample precedent for doing so, not only in the Articles of Confederation but in nearly every state constitution.
Custom, rather than law, is the basis of the most common arguments for breaching the wall between church and state... Handed a tabula rasa [something in its original pure state] by a public uneducated in civics, church and state revisionists are free to ignore not only the strong anticlerical views of so many of the nation's first leaders but also their loathing of all entanglements between religion and government.

"The constitutional principle of separation of church and state has given Americans more religious freedom than any people in world history. Around the globe, those suffering under the heavy heel of government-sponsored religious oppression look to America's church-state model with longing. The "wall of separation between church and state" is America's bulwark of true religious liberty."
-Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State

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