Wall of Separation

I have a lot of pet peeves, it’s a character flaw (or superpower). I know this about myself. As a result, I try not to rant about them too often because once I get going I can end up going on and on forever. Nobody wants that, least of all me.

The reason I bring this up is because I am specifically about to address one of those peeves. The infamous (or dreaded depending on perspective I suppose) separation of church and state. There are a lot of things regarding the Constitution and the Bill of rights that I can be extremely passionate about, one of them is misinterpretations and misconceptions. Specifically, interpreting the Constitution or Bill of Rights to say something that is doesn’t, or worse claiming something is in it that isn’t.

This is why I get so worked up about the concept of separation of church and state. It is simultaneously both of those. Not only do those words not appear anywhere in the Constitution, the concept itself does not exist there either.

Now you wait just a minute there Keith, everyone knows that in this country we have separation of church and state. EVERYONE!! What do you mean it isn’t in the Constitution??

I mean exactly what I said, it simply is not there.

Before we get too much farther I want to stop and clarify that I am not trying to be that annoying literalist playing gotcha with specific wording. I’m not that guy. We all know the one, the one that can’t take a joke. The one that shows up on your facebook post to tell you why the post is wrong even though it is CLEARLY being facetious. I’m not saying I’ve never been that guy, just that it isn’t my whole personality and that isn’t what I’m getting at here. While yes, the specific words “separation of church and state”  do not appear anywhere in the Constitution or Bill of Rights, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about.

What I am talking about is the concept. I’m talking about the idea of separation that anyone to whom you make the previous statement will immediately assert is there within the First Amendment. When I say there is no separation of church and state within the Constitution I mean that what people are interpreting the First Amendment to say is not at all what it says or even what it was trying to accomplish.

Well ok then smart guy, what does it say??

I’m glad you asked. What the First Amendment actually says is that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[1]

SEE there it is! It’s right there! SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE!!!!

You keep using those words, I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

I think perhaps that in order to better understand what this amendment means, we should look to the intent behind the creation of the amendment. These amendments weren’t written haphazardly, there were specific issues they were trying to address. Specific problems that can arise as a direct result of government power that must be addressed and constrained prior to their existence to prevent future problems. Like, for example, another part of the First amendment: freedom of speech.

People were often arrested and imprisoned for things they said in the previous colonial structure. Not just against the king, anyone in a position of some kind of authority could have someone jailed because of something they said. Therefore, the free speech principle was established with the words: “Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech.”[2]  So then, with regard to the separation of church and state, let’s look to the problem they were trying to solve by creating this amendment in the first place.

As the majority of people in the United States are aware, one of the reasons that people came to the New World in the first place is for freedom of religion. In the Old World, there was a lot of restriction involving religion. Many places, and England in particular, had official state religions. Adherence to the same religion as the king was compulsory. It was required by law that you had to be a member of a specific religious denomination or sect regardless of whether you actually believed in the tenets of that religion or not.

This was the problem the First Amendment was trying to solve. Our Founders believed that your religion was between you and God. They did not think it fair for the government to try and force a religious belief on you by mandating that everyone would be part of a specific religion.

Thomas Jefferson addresses this in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. The Danbury Baptist Association had written to Jefferson, essentially advocating for the establishment of a national denomination. In his reply he stated to them: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”[3]


Yeah, not exactly.

The problem here is that when people hear or read that quote from Jefferson they seem to completely disregard the preceding sentences. Specifically, the part that says, “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.”[4] It is with that section that we can begin to understand the context of not just the “wall of separation” but the entire First Amendment itself. The intended wall of separation was meant to keep the state out of the church, not the other way around. The wall was a wall of protection, not of exclusion.

The entire purpose of the First Amendment with regard to religion was to prevent the government from interfering in the church and mandating an official state religion. That was it. There was never any intent on keeping religious beliefs out of government. These were men of deeply held religious beliefs; it is absurd to suggest that they wanted to keep religion relegated to Sundays and neatly tucked away within its own little compartment, never to be involved with the government.

In fact, there are numerous examples of direct quotes from our Founders which directly refute the idea that religion was to be excluded from government.  For example: John Adams said that “our Constitution was written only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[5] George Washington stated that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports”.[6] Benjamin Franklin, the man most often pointed to as an example of a secularist within our founders, actually called for a halt to the Constitutional Convention in order for the delegates to engage in prayer.[7] Additionally, the Massachusetts Constitution which was created in 1780 (by men involved in the creation of the US Constitution), included language that authorized the “public worship of God”[8] because they believed the government depended upon “piety, religion, and morality.”[9] Also, in his questioning for the Van Orden case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (rightfully) pointed out that the same legislature which passed the First Amendment also recommended Thanksgiving proclamations.[10]

These repeated references to religion with regard to government, by the men most familiar with the intent of the First Amendment, could under no circumstances be considered to equate to a desire to prevent the comingling of religion and government. In other words, there is no such thing as separation of church and state. At least, not in the way most people use it. The simple fact of the matter is that when our government was created it was created with the intent and understanding that religion would be a major influence on the people who comprised that government.

People are trying to twist the Constitution to suit their agendas rather than admit that it says what it says. They don’t like that it establishes specific enumerated powers and is intended to solve specific problems. They need it to be pliable in order to suit their agendas so they work to reinterpret it in an effort to make it say what it does not say. By doing that, they undermine the framework upon which this nation was built. They erode the very foundation of our Republic.

And that’s why I get so annoyed when people misinterpret or misrepresent the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

[1] US Constitution, amend. 1, sec. 1.

[2] US Constitution, amend. 1, sec. 2.

[3] Thomas Jefferson. “Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists.” Library of Congress. January 1, 1802. https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html

[4] Ibid.

[5] John Adams. “From John Adams to Massachusetts Militia.” Founders Online, National Archives. October 11, 1798. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-02-02-3102

[6] George Washington. “Transcript of President George Washington’s Farewell Address (1796).” OurDocuments.gov. 1796

[7] John Eidsmoe. Christianity and the Constitution. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1987.

[8] Vincent Philip Munoz. “Thou Shalt Not Post the Ten Commandments – McCreary, Van Orden, and the Future of Religious Display Cases .” Texas Review of Law & Politics, 2006: 357-400.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Van Orden v. Perry. 03-1500 (United States Supreme Court, June 27, 2005).

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