Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
— The first 16 words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Today, many conservative Christians and politicians falsely claim that separation of church and state does not exist, and that the First Amendment was designed only to protect religious persons from government intrusion, not to prohibit government from favoring or establishing religion. This refrain is so commonly repeated – often accompanied by false quotes, quotes taken out of context, or unrepresentative quotes (of whom David Barton’s mythological history is perhaps most indicative) – that it is as if in the repeating of the lie, it will somehow become true.
Hardly. Yet for those who are concerned with the truth about our nation’s founding and its religious heritage, the phony history projected by the anti-separation crowd can seen overwhelming.
At a time when Protestant Christianity (expressed in varied denominations) was the dominant faith of the citizenry (although few attended church on any regular basis), America’s founders clearly separated church and state, much to the consternation, frequently vocalized, of many conservative Christians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Yet Washington, Adams and Madison during their presidencies also honored the pluralistic religious faiths, and non faith, collectively held by citizens by sometimes speaking to the nation in vague terms that, while avoiding the word “God” (or any other sectarian religious terms), were broad enough to make all (religious and non-religious) feel included. Adams was sometimes an exception, during his presidency occasionally employing explicitly Christian language in an effort to improve the morals and “warlike virtures” of the nation, although in later years he denounced such practices, declaring that he should have avoided employing such religious language as president.
The best single volume that explains the historical narrative and context of how a nation of religious adherents created a central government founded upon the separation of church and state, and examines the early dynamics of a secular government legislating over a nation of (largely) religious adherents, is Endowed by our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America, by Michael I. Meyerson.
Meyerson’s book is an excellent volume to hand to friends who insist that America was founded as a Christian nation. Other excellent resources are also listed throughout this website. Many Christian nationalists, however, are so sure of their misguided views as to not be interested in reading, much less embracing, the actual historical context of church state separation in the founding of America.
For such persons, a simple conversational response that briefly and succinctly ties the past to the present in a personal way may be helpful.
Following are a couple of brief responses that I’ve compiled to respond to the misinformation dished out by the anti-separation crowd. Also included below is a listing of more resources for use in debunking phony anti-separation “history.”
HOW TO RESPOND TO THE LIE THAT “THE SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE IS A MYTH”
Here is a good initial response that strikes at the root of the issue:
Church state separation is central to America’s founding principles and faith heritage. In 1644, Baptist Roger Williams (persecuted by “Christian” colonial theocrats, who considered Baptists heretical) called for a “wall of separation” between church and state. Baptists’ “wall of separation” would prevent government from interfering with the free exercise of religion, and prevent government from incorporating religion into governance.
Generations of Baptists were persecuted, and shed blood, in the fight (against colonial theocracies) to separate church and state. Their triumph finally came in the enactment of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, establishing the Baptist (religious) vision of a “wall of separation” between church and state of which many others embraced from philosophical and political perspectives.
Deniers of church state separation often respond that the phrase “wall of separation” is not in the U. S. Constitution. Well, neither is the word “Trinity” in the Bible, but most deniers of church state separation probably believe in the Trinity.
More importantly, Christians of the late 18th and early 19th centuries clearly understood that the First Amendment wording – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – separated church from state. Their testimony bears much more weight than the fabricated history loved by many modern conservative Christians and politicians.
Make no mistake: denying church state separation mocks our nation’s founding principles and faith heritage. Church state separation was good for America in 1791, and it is good for America now. To see the problems of merging church and state, look to the Middle East, where conservative religious law (Sharia Law, based on the biblical Old Testament) rules.
Church state separation is a liberal, and American, moral value of which we all can be proud.
And here is a good followup to the argument that goes something like this: “I do believe in separation of church and state, but today the concept is applied too strictly. Besides, Christianity as the majority faith should receive preferential treatment by our government.”
Are you in favor of persons of all faiths and no faith – Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, pagans, wiccans, atheists, etc. – equally being allowed to pray (or offer faith-based or non-faith based spiritual or similar thoughts) in government-funded settings and venues like public schools, town council meetings, state legislators, Congress, etc.? Or do you think that such public religious roles, in government-sponsored settings, should be reserved for Christians only (or monotheists only)?
Baptists from the 17th century onward insisted that Christians, Muslims, Jews, pagans, atheists and everyone else should be treated equally by the government. And yes, they advocated for an absolute separation of church and state, as does our U.S. Constitution.
The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution allows all individual religious persons to express their faith freely as citizens in non-governmental venues, public and private. The Constitution (Article VI) also prohibits a religious test clause for government service (that is, a person’s faith or lack of faith has no bearing on government service). At the same time, the First Amendment prohibits government from promoting any religion or enacting religious laws. This includes prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars – including government buildings, venues and programs funded by taxpayers – for the promotion of religious views.
This is not to say that America (in practice) always adequately separated church and state even in the 19th century, much less today; theocratic tendencies from our colonial era haunted us then, and still do. Religious majorities yesteryear and today, with their powerful influence and righteous certainty, too frequently want government to enact their own faith-specific agendas.
Many Americans today cannot fully grasp the historical context of our nation’s heritage of separation of church and state, apart from living as a person of minority faith, say, in the Middle East.
In all likelihood, if Christianity were a small, minority sect in America today, the very voices now condemning separation of church and state would, suddenly, be demanding a strict separation of church and state. In the meantime, your tax dollars should not be used to promote the religious views of your neighbor, and your neighbor’s tax dollars should not be used to promote your religious views.
Both statements above are the wording of Bruce Gourley, Executive Director, Baptist History & Heritage Society, www.baptisthistory.org. The quoted material may be freely used in printed and electronic form, as long as due credit is given.
History of Religious Liberty in America (by Charles C. Haynes, First Amendment Center)
Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State Quotes (compiled by Bruce Gourley, Baptist History & Heritage Society)
Top 5 Myths of the Separation of Church and State (by Brent Walker, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty)
American Theocracy: Who Wants to Turn America Into a Theocracy? (by Bruce Gourley, Baptist History & Heritage Society)
Thomas Jefferson, Atheist? (by Bruce Gourley, Baptist History & Heritage Society)
Outline of Baptist Persecution in Colonial America (by Bruce Gourley, Baptist History & Heritage Society)
Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternative Version of History (by Chris Rodda, Military Religious Freedom Foundation)
The best First Amendment books (as compiled by the First Amendment Center)