The words “separation of church and state” appear nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or U.S. Constitution. So where does this oft-quoted phrase mean, and where does it come from?
An important day for Americans is just around the corner: Religious Freedom Sunday, January 10, 2010. The importance of this day of remembrance is driven home by just how much we, as Americans, have forgotten about our heritage.
When it comes to the issue of religious freedom in America, often the phrase “separation of church and state” comes to mind. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution plainly forbids the creation of a national church, because that would be an “establishment of religion.” However, the Constitution says nothing about the so-called “separation of church and state” that is referred to so often in the public discourse today. That phrase simply does not exist in any of our nation’s founding documents. It is a phrase used by Thomas Jefferson in a personal letter to some pastors from the Danbury (CT) Baptist Association of Churches in 1802, responding to their concern that the federal government might establish a national denominational religious preference.
Nowhere in the Declaration or the Constitution
Not only is the term “separation of church and state” not in any of America’s governing documents, but the fact of the matter is that even into the early 1800’s, some of the original and early states had churches sanctioned by state government, usually requiring public officeholders (not individual citizens) to be members in good standing of a church. But that was acceptable because throughout the colonial period and most of American history, religion was widely treated as a state matter, with each state determining its own preference. The First Amendment only prohibited the U.S. Congress from establishing a national religion; it said nothing about the states.
In addition, the Christian religion, in some form or fashion, was held by all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Framers of the Constitution. Their own writings prove this, and author David Barton has shown that even the two “least Christian” of these men, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were far more religious than what we would describe today as the “Religious Right.”
Indicative of the thinking of the time is the following statement by John Quincy Adams, our sixth president:
Our political way of life is by the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, and of course presupposes the existence of God, the moral ruler of the universe, and a rule of right and wrong, of just and unjust, binding upon man, preceding all institutions of human society and government.
A Phrase Popularized in the 1940s
However, in 1947 the U.S. Supreme Court used the phrase “separation of church and state” in ruling on a First Amendment issue and, over time, the general public has erroneously been led to believe that the “separation of church and state” somehow requires the church (the body of Christ) to stay out of matters of the public policy. And, unfortunately, too many church leaders have either accepted this historical revisionism or used it as justification for being silent on cultural and political issues.
The “political correctness” movement has even gone so far as to “preach” that the separation of church and state means that Americans should erase all references to God from this nation. Such nonsense was clearly never the Founders’ position, but it has become the position of millions of Americans today.
In 1952, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote:
We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group, and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma …
To hold that government may not encourage religious instruction would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe … We find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence.
Thank you, Justice Douglass! He was right, but his words are hardly ever heard anymore. We have allowed irreligion to become the dominant religion. So, let’s take the opportunity given us by Religious Freedom Sunday to “correct” this deficiency and proclaim the truth about America’s history.