Separation of Church and State. What does it mean? Where did it come from?

The early American colonists were a religious and God-fearing people. Many of the governmental leaders were also religious leaders. All had a profound reverence for the Creator and often referred to the Supreme Being as “Providence.”

As the Constitution was being considered and written, the Founders pondered the relationship of religion to the new government. They were very much aware of the difficulties that arose when a “state religion” was adopted and bonded with the government, as it had in many European countries. They were highly in favor of religious influence in the lives of all Americans and in favor of the salutary influence that Judeo-Christian principles had in the formation of this country and its government.

They were so determined to avoid the European experience, that the first amendment to the new Constitution contained the mandate:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”

They wanted to retain the influence in government of the principles of morality as taught by all religions of their day but they were careful to forbid the government from promoting any individual religion or to interfere in any religious practices so long as individual rights were not infringed by those practices.

Then came the day in 1802, when the Danbury Baptists worried that two of the more prominent religions of the day were gaining sufficient public favor that they might be established as the “preferred” denominations to the exclusion of other sects. They wrote to then President Thomas Jefferson, asking for reassurance that such was not the case. His brief and respectful reply was to promise them that the First Amendment guaranteed “a wall of separation between Church and State.” He assured them that religious liberties were “natural rights” (meaning inalienable rights or God given rights) that could not be taken away by government.

It is critical here to remember that the First Amendment mandates government to stay entirely out of religion but it nowhere implies that religious influence must stay out of government. Thus, the “wall of separation” that Jefferson referred to is a uni-directional wall. Should there be any doubt about that, we have only to turn to the writings of these men to settle the question.

George Washington:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.”

“True religion affords to government its surest support.”

John Adams:

“Religion and virtue are the only foundations . . . of all free governments.”

Many similar quotes from other Founders could be cited.

Then in 1962, in the case Engel v. Vitale, the Supreme Court struck down a simple 22 word prayer that was being used in New York schools. The prayer reads as follows:

“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.”

The court claimed that this prayer, because it was state-approved, represented a coercion of the students who repeated it. The interesting thing is that this is the first case of this nature where no precedent cases were cited to support the court’s interpretation of the first amendment. Throughout this nation’s first 150 years, the rulings of the Court had preserved non-denominational religious support in our government.

The 1962 Court defended their change of policy with the following statements:

“Prayer in its public school system breaches the constitutional wall of separation between Church and State.”

“A union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion.”

And so began the battle we are still facing which attempts to remove all religious influence from public expression. The most prominent example, of course, is the removal of prayer from public schools. Other examples are the removal of the Ten Commandments from courthouses, the avoidance of the expression “Merry Christmas” in favor of, “Happy Holidays,” etc., etc., etc.

History also reveals that, in all of the writings and correspondence of the founding era thought leaders, in all of the deliberations of the constitutional convention, and in all of the founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution itself, the expression “separation of Church and State” has never appeared! Its only source is the Danbury Baptist letter by President Thomas Jefferson, and in that letter, the phrase is taken out of context.

Is it that the Supreme Court simply hadn’t done their homework in Engel v. Vitale or is there another agenda promoting this movement? And what of the people of the United States, 75% of whom currently claim the Christian religion?

Friends, I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. Let’s keep our faith strong within us as individuals and invite our Creator back into our national life at every opportunity.

Jud and Catherine Miller

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