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Church and State: The Separation Illusion

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  • James
    Church and State: The Separation Illusion Gregory Koukl The goal of First Amendment was to protect religious expression, not restrict it. In the last 50 years,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 4, 2006
      Church and State: The Separation Illusion

      Gregory Koukl

      The goal of First Amendment was to protect religious expression,
      not restrict it. In the last 50 years, though, "non-establishment" has
      been redefined as "separation," effectively amending the Constitution
      and isolating Christians from the political process.

      "Will You Be a Casualty in Their Religious War?" read the headline of
      an advertisement that almost covered an entire page of the L.A. Times.
      Underneath were pictures of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Lou
      Sheldon, along with condemning quotes substantiating their apparent
      jihad against irreligious secularists.

      The text of the advertisement read:

      "The radical religious right has declared war on America. It is a
      war of ideas. A war of conscience. It's a religious war. This war
      strikes at the very heart of our Constitution and threatens the
      freedoms we hold most dear. Freedom to worship as we please and to
      believe what we want to believe. The freedom to determine for
      ourselves what religious and moral views our own children are exposed
      to. The freedom to conduct our lives as we see fit without having our
      privacy violated. For some time now, the radical religious right has
      claimed that there is no such thing as church/state separation in our
      Constitution. They are wrong. Find out why."

      It goes on to promote a book by Robert Boston entitled Why the
      Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church and State .[i]

      The ad is correct on a couple of points. There is a sense in which the
      "religious right" is at war, but the battle is not against America,
      it's about America. And it is a war of ideas: Is there a legitimate
      separation of church and state, and what does that mean?
      What Does "Separation of Church and State" Mean?

      The current understanding of "separation of church and state"--the
      view that the state is thoroughly secular and not influenced by
      religious values, especially Christian--was completely foreign to the
      first 150 years of American political thought. Clearly the Fathers did
      not try to excise every vestige of Christian religion, Christian
      thought, and Christian values from all facets of public life. They
      were friendly to Christianity and encouraged its public practice and

      It wasn't until 1947 that the United States Supreme Court first used
      the concept of "separation" to isolate government from religion.[ii]
      In Everson v. Board of Education, the court lifted a phrase from a
      letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a Baptist church in Danbury,
      Connecticut. The Court ruled, "Neither a state nor the Federal
      Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one
      religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another....In
      the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion
      by law was intended to erect `a wall of separation between church and

      The Infamous Danbury Letter

      In the Everson v. Board of Education decision, the Supreme Court
      quoted Jefferson's separation language as a normative guideline for
      understanding the First Amendment. As David Barton points out,
      "There's probably no other instance in America's history where words
      spoken by an individual have become the law of the land. Jefferson's
      remark now carries more weight in judicial circles than does the
      writing of any other Founder."[iv]

      Thomas Jefferson wasn't a member of the Constitutional Convention, and
      the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear anywhere
      in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Where did it come from?

      On January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist
      Association of Danbury, Connecticut, in which he used the phrase "a
      wall of separation between church and state." His note was meant to
      quell the fears of the Danbury congregation who were concerned that a
      national denomination would be established. Here is the text in question:

      I contemplate with solemn 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.[v]

      What did Jefferson have in mind here? Is there an impregnable barrier
      erected by the founders[vi] that excludes religious-minded people from
      the political process, an ideological enmity between church and state?

      The First Amendment

      In contrast to the present confusion about separation, the First
      Amendment is startling in its clarity, offering no limit to the impact
      of religious and moral conviction of individual citizens on public
      policy. It is worth reading often. Here it is:

      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

      Please forgive me for stating the obvious: The First Amendment
      restricts the government, not the people. Jefferson's wall is a
      one-way wall. Any religious person, any religious organization, any
      religious conviction has its place in the public debate. It's called
      pluralism in the classic sense.

      Notice there are not two distinct provisions here, but one.
      Non-establishment has no purpose by itself. Freedom of religion is the
      goal, and non-establishment is the means. The only way to have true
      freedom of religion is to keep government out of religion's affairs.
      This provides for what Steven Monsma calls "positive neutrality." This
      view "defines religious freedom in terms of a governmental neutrality
      toward religion in which no religion is favored over any other, and
      neither religion nor secularism is favored over each other."[vii]

      The First Amendment was rewritten twelve times to make clear its
      intent. The concept set forth in the Bill of Rights is
      "non-establishment," not isolation. We should strike the "separation"
      language from our vocabulary.
      Separation: Original Intent or Recent Invention?

      A Fatal Flaw

      The constant appeal to Jefferson's Danbury letter by hard core
      separationists reveals a fatal flaw in their approach. Quoting
      Jefferson's opinion only matters if Jefferson's original intent still
      applies today. If it doesn't, then the Danbury citation is irrelevant.
      If it does, then Jefferson's full views on the issue have merit in
      this discussion.

      It's clear, though, that the Everson Court used Jefferson's words, not
      his ideas. The separation language itself was not in common use at the
      time. It does not show up in any notes of the Constitutional
      Convention or of the Congress responsible for the Bill of Rights or
      the First Amendment.

      What was Jefferson's intent? To show that the Federal government
      couldn't establish a national denomination. That's all. In another
      letter, this one to Samuel Miller in 1808, Jefferson expanded on his view:

      Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to
      assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the
      General Government. It must then rest with the States, as far is it
      can be in any human authority.[viii]

      This is a stunning revelation for advocates of a Jeffersonian model of
      separation. According to Jefferson, the Federal Government couldn't
      prescribe religious exercise or discipline, but the states could. It
      wasn't until 1947 that the Everson Court made the federal provision
      binding on the states, expressly contrary to Jefferson, though they
      quoted him for support.

      For nearly two centuries state and federal governments have had such a
      benevolent attitude towards religion in general and Christianity in
      particular--including the almost universal practice of school
      prayer--that it would make a 1990s fundamentalist blush.

      The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, passed by the very same Congress
      which enacted the First Amendment, stated the following in Article
      III: "Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good
      government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of
      education shall forever be encouraged." Notice that religion and
      morality were equal with knowledge as proper subjects of public education.

      All but three states invoke the name of the almighty God in the
      preambles to their constitutions. Note these examples:

      We the people of the State of California, grateful to Almighty God
      for our freedom, in order to secure and perpetuate its blessings, do
      establish this Constitution.

      We the people of Alabama...invoking the favor and guidance of
      Almighty God, do ordain and establish...

      The people of Connecticut, acknowledging with gratitude the good
      providence of God, in having permitted them to enjoy a free government...

      If Jefferson's view of non-establishment mattered today, then dozens
      of court decisions restricting religious freedom would be annulled.
      The present notion of separation is not conservative, seeking to
      return to earlier principles, but activist, seeking to redefine--and
      liberalize--the past.

      Separationists' Achilles Heel

      Separationists attempt to take the Constitutional high ground by
      quoting Jefferson and others like him. They claim that the founders
      envisioned a high wall of separation. Recent court decisions simply
      enforce those original intentions.

      Is the "religious right" imposing a new standard favoring religion
      that undermines our basic Constitutional freedoms, as the L.A. Times
      ad claimed? You can get to the heart of the matter by asking another
      question: Do these recent legal actions stop something from being
      added, or do they remove things already there? They remove them.

      Courts have removed prayer from school, crèches from the lawns of city
      halls, and crosses from public parks. Separationists have managed to
      get personal Bibles off of teachers' desks, the Ten Commandments out
      of school rooms, and references to God eliminated from students'
      graduation speeches.

      This is their Achilles' heel: Things can only be removed that were
      already there to begin with. How did they get there? They were allowed
      by citizens, legislatures, and courts who saw no harm in them, no
      intolerance, no danger, and no breech of any Constitutional principle
      for almost 175 years.

      This observation tells us two things. First, from the beginning,
      religious symbols and religious thought were woven into the fabric of
      government and society with no sense of Constitutional impropriety.
      This proves that the new court actions are revisionist, an attempt to
      change the traditional practice, not a return to our historical and
      Constitutional roots.

      Second, conservatives are in a defensive posture, not an offensive
      one. The "religious right" has not declared war. The war has been
      declared on an American way of life held dear to many, and they won't
      surrender it without a fight.

      Separating the Church Right Out of the State

      In 1976, I and three others ventured behind the iron curtain in a
      clandestine operation bringing aid to persecuted Christians in Soviet
      Bloc countries. On Friday, July 23, we were detained at the border
      station of Leushen, Moldavia, USSR, because we had Russian Bibles in
      our possession.

      After ransacking our car and personal belongings and strip-searching
      one of our group, border officials took us inside for questioning by a
      female interpreter. Where did we get the Bibles? Who were they for?
      Didn't we know that such trafficking was illegal? The questions went
      on for hours.

      When we explained the Bibles were for believers in the Soviet Union,
      she wanted to know their names.

      "We planned to look the churches up in the phone directory."

      "We don't have churches listed in our phone directories."

      We pointed out that in the United States, where there is freedom of
      religion, all of the churches are listed. Didn't they have freedom of
      religion in the Soviet Union?

      "Yes," she assured us, "of course we have freedom of religion, but we
      have separation of church and state." This was not the first time we
      were to hear this cryptic phrase.

      The interpreter explained that the government printed all the Bibles
      needed for Soviet Christians. "We have our department of atheism and
      spend a large amount of money each year teaching them these things. We
      don't allow any other propaganda."

      "But you print Bibles in the USSR?"

      "Yes, our believers get all the Bibles they need, but they are given
      out only through the church and we must have all their names."

      "But you do have religious freedom?"

      "Yes, we have religious freedom."

      "And we can't bring in Bibles?"

      "No, we don't allow that propaganda in our country."

      "The Bible is propaganda?"


      "But you print Bibles in your own country."


      I was surprised she couldn't see what was coming. "Then that means you
      are printing anti-communist propaganda right in your own country."

      Her immediate reply was the cryptic, "But we have separation of church
      and state."

      This mantra was her blanket reply justifying all government
      interference with our activities. How were we interfering with
      separation? What did it actually mean? My partner's definition was
      probably the most accurate. "They're separating the church right out
      of the state," he quipped.

      As I look back on that incident 20 years ago, I'm struck by the
      contrast. Today there is more de facto religious liberty in former
      communist countries than we experience here in the United States. Now
      it is American courts that chant the mantra of separation to prohibit
      religious conduct in the public square.

      The ACLU, in a letter to California State Senator Newton Russell,
      objected that "teaching that monogamous, heterosexual intercourse
      within marriage is a traditional American value is unconstitutional
      establishment of a religious doctrine in public schools."[ix]

      The Supreme Court opens each session with the words, "God save this
      honorable court." Yet in June, 1994, the same Supreme Court let stand
      a lower court ruling removing the Ten Commandments from a courtroom.
      This is rather ironic, considering a bas-relief of Moses holding the
      tablets of the Old Testament Law broods over the Chief Justice's seat.
      Engraved upon the lower half of each entrance door is the same Ten
      Commandments banished by the court.

      Twisted logic like this is "separating the church right out of the state."
      How Five People Can Amend the Constitution

      Amending the Constitution is an arduous process. Changes require an
      appeal by two-thirds of both Houses or by the Legislatures of
      two-thirds of the states to even get started. Ratification requires a
      three-fourths majority of either the states' legislatures or special
      Constitutional conventions.

      That's what the founders intended. The Constitution's
      provisions--including the Bill of Rights--were considered so weighty
      that only the most united and energetic efforts of the nation could
      alter it.

      Shell Game

      Today, de facto Constitutional amendments only require five
      non-elected citizens--a simple majority of the nine-member Supreme Court.

      The High Court wouldn't dream of simply deleting the Bill of Rights.
      That would be despotism. Yet they don't balk at so redefining its
      meaning that the original disappears, though the words remain the
      same. Like dupes in a magician's shell game, the citizens miss the
      sleight of hand and don't even know they've been robbed.

      If the responsibility of all branches of government is to preserve,
      protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, ought not
      those branches preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution that was
      actually delivered, rather than some fanciful remake? If our Republic
      is guarded by the Constitution, then we are left defenseless when the
      words of the Constitution are redefined at will.

      The authors of the First Amendment did not seek to expunge every shred
      of religious sentiment from the public arena. They did just the
      opposite, decorating their buildings with biblical imagery,
      punctuating their public discourses with biblical quotes, and
      grounding their laws on biblical morality.

      Christian religion was the cement holding the very foundation stones
      of the Republic together. That cement is being chipped out, piece by
      piece, leaving a building without mortar, a stack of bricks ready to
      topple at the slightest quake.

      An "Unconstitutional" President Lincoln

      To show how far we've declined, I close with the words of President
      Lincoln in his Proclamation for a National Day of Fasting,
      Humiliation, and Prayer, March 30, 1863:

      We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We
      have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We
      have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever
      grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand
      which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and
      strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of
      our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior
      wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we
      have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and
      preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It
      behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to
      confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.*

      A hundred years and sixteen Presidents had passed, yet our country's
      chief executive could still call his nation to humble repentance
      without the slightest hint of embarrassment, impropriety, or apology.

      By today's standards, though, the words of one of our greatest
      Presidents could not be spoken at certain government functions. The
      very same advice could not be given by a teacher to his junior high
      class. This alone is enough to show that the popular understanding of
      separation of church and state is foreign to the Constitution and to
      the world view that gave it birth.

      *Source: The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P.
      Basler. Full text can be viewed at
      [i] Robert Boston, Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation
      of Church and State, (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993).

      [ii] The phrase was mentioned once before in the discourse of the
      Court in the 1878 case of Reynolds v. The United States when Mormons
      attempted an unsuccessful defense of polygamy based on the
      non-establishment clause of the First Amendment. The non-establishment
      clause protected Mormon beliefs, not Mormon practices (e.g.,
      polygamy). This conduct was still proscribed by prevailing morality,
      specifically Christian morality.

      [iii] Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S at 15-16 (1947).

      [iv] David Barton, The Myth of Separation, (Aledo, TX: WallBuilder
      Press), p. 44.

      [v] Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Writings, Merrill D. Peterson, ed.
      (NY: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1984), p. 510,
      January 1, 1802.

      [vi] Note that the word "founders" is not capitalized here because I'm
      not referring to the 55 members of the Constitutional Convention, but
      to the broader group responsible for the passage of the Bill of Rights.

      [vii] Stephen Monsma, Positive Neutrality--Letting Religious Freedom
      Ring, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), p. 203.

      [viii] Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert
      Bergh, ed. (Washington D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial
      Association, 1904), vol. XI, p. 428, letter on January 23, 1808,
      quoted in Barton, p. 42.

      [ix] Majorie C. Swartz, Francisco Lobaco, American Civil Liberties
      Union Legislative Office, April 18, 1988. Copy on file. Note: The
      courts have not agreed with the ACLU on this point.

      This is a transcript of a commentary from the radio show "Stand to
      Reason," with Gregory Koukl. It is made available to you at no charge
      through the faithful giving of those who support Stand to Reason.
      Reproduction permitted for non-commercial use only. ©2002 Gregory Koukl

      For more information, contact Stand to Reason at 1438 East 33rd St.,
      Signal Hill, CA 90755
      (800) 2-REASON (562) 595-7333 www.str.org
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