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Why the First Amendment Has Nothing To Do with Separation of Church and State

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America is a nation built on religious principles—our founding fathers were all men of religious belief with deep religious convictions. The framers of the constitution were mostly Episcopalians, but there were also Catholics, Quakers, Baptists, and even a few deists, such as Jefferson and Franklin. America was, from its beginning, a frontier for religious mission, and the pilgrims arguably neared chauvinism when it came to evangelization. In The Dividing of Christendom, Christopher Dawson writes about “the historic mission to which the founders of the American Churches has been called—to carry out and complete the Reformation which could not be fulfilled in England.”

It’s no mistake that the pilgrims are called pilgrims. After all, the purpose of their journey was fundamentally religious. A covenant-bound community in America was a clearly defined purpose for the leaders of the great migrations of 1630. They came to complete the task of reformation.

But the idea of separating these religious convictions from the proper functioning of the state is often thrown around as constitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly built up a wall between Church and State. In Reynolds v. United States of 1879, the Supreme Court wrote that Jefferson’s comments, which I will touch on later, “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the First Amendment.” Then again, in 1947, in the case of Everson v. Board of Education, Justice Hugo Black wrote: “In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.”

So where does the idea of separation of Church and State come from? To find out, we should start by looking at the constitution. The First Amendment of the constitution reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

A strict interpretation of the First Amendment excludes the Jeffersonian language of separation. In the Amendment above, the only phrases that have anything to do with religion are “establishment” and “free exercise.” This language implies an indifference towards religion, not an exclusion of it, and certainly not hostility towards it, which is often the posture of our culture.

The establishment clause was influenced by the abundance of religious views in America at the time of its founding. It was written out of openness to all religious beliefs and customs­—the furthest thing from a rejection of religion. It would have been unjust to establish a single national religion.

The free exercise clause is a bit trickier. Properly understanding it requires a working definition of freedom, which I’m not ready to provide. But I don’t think it’s ridiculous to assume that freedom to practice includes freedom to bring faith to the public square. Freedom of religion is more than being able to practice behind closed doors.

The point is, neither of these clauses is evidence for separation. The idea of separating Church from State was a private opinion of Thomas Jefferson—one interpretation among many. In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, Jefferson wrote:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and State.”

The tone in Jefferson’s letter suggests that religion is decidedly a private matter, that there is no room for religion in the public sphere. Religion concerns man’s relationship with God, not his relationship with neighbors. The idea of separating Church from State is not a new one—but the sort of separation we see in the modern world is. In the middle ages, there was also separation. But it was a dualistic separation that allowed for dialogue between civic and ecclesial authorities. Now, in the modern world, separation means silence—the two great powers in society have stopped talking to one another. Power and love are always going to need to be in dialogue.

Maybe it's time we reconsidered our understanding of separation.

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