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This Is What “Separation of Church and State” Really Means

Image by Hannah via Pixabay. Image by Hannah via Pixabay.

While it is often thought that religion and politics must be discussed as if they are radically different spheres, the Founders’ conception of religious liberty was almost exactly the opposite. The separation of church and state authority actually allowed—even required—the continual influence of religion upon public life. In a nation of limited government, religion is the greatest source of the virtue and moral character required for self-rule.

The health and strength of liberty depend on the principles, standards, and morals shared by nearly all religions. In his First Inaugural, Thomas Jefferson praised America’s “benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.” In recognizing the need for public morality and the prominent role that religion plays in nurturing morality, the Founders invited the various religious communities to cooperate at the political level in sustaining the moral consensus they share despite their theological differences. While this does not exclude any religious denomination that agreed with this consensus, in America as a practical matter it overwhelmingly meant the Protestant denominations of the Christian faith and a religious tradition formed by Christian theology.

What the “separation of church and state” does, then, is liberate America’s religions—in respect to their moral forms and teachings—to exercise unprecedented influence over private and public opinion by shaping citizens’ mores, cultivating their virtues, and in general, providing a pure and independent source of moral reasoning and authority. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville meant when he observed that even though religion “never mixes directly in the government of society,” it nevertheless determines the “habits of the heart” and is “the first of their political institutions.”

This sense of religious liberty—by which faith is accorded maximum freedom while government gives no preference to any one particular religion— is clearly reflected in the United States Constitution. Usually taken for granted, the simplest articulation of the principle, and the starkest difference with earlier failed attempts to combine church and state, is found in Article VI: “ . . . [N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

The full dynamic of religious liberty in America is expressed in the first words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The constitutional language here reflects two interconnected ideas, distinguished as the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. Often thought to be in tension, these clauses are actually two sides of the same coin of religious liberty.

The Establishment Clause prohibits Congress from passing a law to establish a national church or to disestablish a state religion. Six of the thirteen original colonies had established churches, and the First Amendment was designed not to disallow those churches, or displace them with a national church. Many opposed an established church because it was seen as a threat to free exercise of religion, which the Constitution’s framers were most concerned to protect. The Free Exercise Clause safeguards one’s freedom to believe and to practice one’s religious faith as a matter of right, without coercion or obstruction, regardless of whether one’s religion is traditional or at odds with tradition. Of course, this does not provide a free pass to violate the law in the name of religion. While the clause prohibits laws that restrict or discriminate against religion, persons of religious faith—like anyone else—are still obligated to abide by general laws. Human sacrifice, for instance, is not excused as an aspect of the free exercise of religion. This arrangement prevents the federal government from taking sides between religions even as it makes as much room as possible for a diversity of religions to flourish within reasonable and general parameters of civil society.

Religious liberty is sometimes thought to mean not only the prohibition of a religious establishment, but the prevention of any “intrusion” of religion in political life—national, state, or local. At the center of this assumption is a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1802. Jefferson wrote: “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.” The letter, written after the First Congress, which Jefferson did not attend, has caused much confusion. Jefferson’s purpose was to explain why he was opposed as president to proclaiming national days of public fasts and thanksgiving—a practice that Congress during the revolution, and then presidents Washington and Adams, had followed, as had Jefferson himself as governor of Virginia. Scholars have generally argued that the letter should be read from the perspective of federalism, illuminating the meaning of the First Amendment, which Jefferson understood to apply only to—and thus limit—the national government and not the state governments.

The Supreme Court nearly a century and a half later seized upon the “wall of separation” phrase, arguing that Jefferson’s letter is an authoritative statement of the meaning of the First Amendment, and creating a new theory of religious-liberty jurisprudence around it. This new wall of separation “must be high and impregnable,” the Supreme Court decided in 1947. “We could not approve the slightest breach.” Thomas Jefferson did not intend such a radical separation, and neither did the other Founders.

While the Constitution officially “separates” church and state at the level of doctrine and lawmaking, it also allows the general (nonsectarian) encouragement and support of religion in public laws, in official
speeches and ceremonies, on public property and in public buildings, and even in public schools. Such activities were understood to be part of the free exercise of religion. On the day after Congress approved the Bill of Rights (including the First Amendment’s religious-liberty language), it called upon the president to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God.” Washington’s proclamation declared that it was “the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.”

Two days after he wrote the “wall of separation” letter, President Jefferson attended a religious service in the U.S. House of Representatives. Indeed, as president, Jefferson regularly attended official church services held in the congressional chambers and allowed executive branch buildings to be used for the same purpose. In general, the Founders saw nothing wrong with the federal government indirectly supporting religion in a nondiscriminatory and noncoercive way. Churches in America, for instance, are tax-exempt, and religious chaplains are paid by Congress to open legislative sessions and minister in the armed services.

Indeed, official recognition of religious faith has always been a central aspect of how we define ourselves as a political community. The Declaration of Independence speaks of men being “created equal” and having been “endowed by their Creator” with certain rights, and the Constitution dates itself “in the Year of our Lord” 1787. The official national motto is “In God We Trust,” and the Pledge of Allegiance speaks of “one nation, under God.” Every president has made official but nonsectarian religious statements, especially in major speeches and statements. Washington began the practice in his First Inaugural, when he spoke of “that Almighty Being who rules over the universe” and is the “Great Author of every public and private good.” In taking the Constitution’s oath of office, placing his hand on a Bible, Washington added in closing “ . . . so help me God.”


This excerpt is taken from Matthew Spalding's book, We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles and Reclaiming Our Future. Matthew Spalding is Associate Vice President and Dean of Educational Programs for Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C. As such he oversees the operations of the Kirby Center and the various academic and educational programs of Hillsdale in the nation’s capital.


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