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Separation of Church and State

The phrase "separation of church and state" has been used so frequently in the news (and perhaps I hear it more being in DC/Baltimore region), that I seriously question if anyone really understands the origins of the phrase and how it's been polluted?

For many, I'll assume they think it means keeping church or religion out of all government and government supported entities. Wrong.

I'm sure many would prefer that scenario, however, to understand this phrase we need to examine two items: the First Amendment and Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
"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."

Let's break it down:
1) Congress cannot make a law or laws that establishes a national religion or the preference of one religion over another, non-religion over religion, or religion over non-religion.

2) Congress cannot make a law or laws that prohibits people from worshiping how they wish.

3) Congress cannot make a law or laws that prohibits people, groups of people, or the press from speaking and communicating their thoughts or information.

4) Congress cannot make a law or laws that prohibits people from peacefully gathering (be careful activists...your freedom to speak can be overshadowed if your assembly is not peaceful).

5) Congress cannot make a law or laws that prohibits people the freedom to petition the government to correct an injustice. They can do so without fear of punishment.

The second part of understanding "separation of church and state" is the Danbury Baptist letter.

Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 to answer a letter from them written in October 1801. The Danbury Baptists were a religious minority in Connecticut, and they complained that in their state, the religious liberties they enjoyed were not seen as immutable rights, but as privileges granted by the legislature - as "favors granted." Jefferson's reply did not address their concerns about problems with state establishment of religion - only of establishment on the national level.

Here's the letter written to Thomas Jefferson:

The address of the Danbury Baptists Association in the state of Connecticut, assembled October 7, 1801.

To Thomas Jefferson, Esq., President of the United States of America.


Among the many million in America and Europe who rejoice in your election to office; we embrace the first opportunity which we have enjoyed in our collective capacity, since your inauguration, to express our great satisfaction, in your appointment to the chief magistracy in the United States: And though our mode of expression may be less courtly and pompous than what many others clothe their addresses with, we beg you, sir, to believe that none are more sincere. Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty--that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals--that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions--that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors; But, sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter together with the law made coincident therewith, were adopted as the basis of our government, at the time of our revolution; and such had been our laws and usages, and such still are; that religion is considered as the first object of legislation; and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights; and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those who seek after power and gain under the pretense of government and religion should reproach their fellow men--should reproach their order magistrate, as a enemy of religion, law, and good order, because he will not, dare not, assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make laws to govern the kingdom of Christ. Sir, we are sensible that the president of the United States is not the national legislator, and also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the laws of each state; but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved president, which have had such genial effect already, like the radiant beams of the sun, will shine and prevail through all these states and all the world, till hierarchy and tyranny be destroyed from the earth. Sir, when we reflect on your past services, and see a glow of philanthropy and good will shining forth in a course of more than thirty years we have reason to believe that America's God has raised you up to fill the chair of state out of that goodwill which he bears to the millions which you preside over. May God strengthen you for your arduous task which providence and the voice of the people have called you to sustain and support you enjoy administration against all the predetermined opposition of those who wish to raise to wealth and importance on the poverty and subjection of the people. And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his heavenly kingdom through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.

Signed in behalf of the association,
Nehemiah Dodge

Ephraim Robbins
Stephen S. Nelson

And Thomas Jefferson's response (Note: The bracketed section in the second paragraph was blocked off for deletion in the final draft of the letter sent to the Danbury Baptists, though it was not actually deleted in his draft of the letter. It is included here for completeness. Reflecting upon his knowledge that the letter was far from a mere personal correspondence, Jefferson deleted the block, he noted in the margin, to avoid offending members of his party in the eastern states.):

Mr. President
To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson
a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.


The affectionate sentiments of esteem & approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful & zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more & more pleasing. Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & 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. [Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorized only to execute their acts, I have refrained from presenting even occasional performances of devotion presented indeed legally where an Executive is the legal head of a national church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.] Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

(signed) Thomas Jefferson Jan.1.1802.

When the First Amendment was passed it only had two purposes:

1) There would be no established, national church for the united thirteen states. To say it another way: there would be no "Church of the United States." The government is prohibited from setting up a state religion, such as Britain has, but no barriers will be erected against the practice of any religion. Never was the intention for our governing bodies to be "separated" from Christianity and its principles. The "wall" was to protect the church from the state. The world was not to corrupt the church, yet the church was free to teach the people Biblical values. It keeps the government from running the church but makes sure that Christian principles will always stay in government.

2) The second purpose of the First Amendment was the very opposite from what is being made of it today. It states expressly that government should not impede or interfere with the free practice of religion. The purpose of the separation of church and state in American society is not to exclude the voice of religion from public debate, but to provide a context of religious freedom where the insights of each religious tradition can be set forth and tested.

The First Amendment, which prohibited any "law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," has evolved into something entirely new. During the last generation, the courts, at all levels, have ruled in ways that essentially guarantee the freedom from religion, instead of the freedom of religion.

"Separation of church and state," as applied to education, means that a prayer at a graduation ceremony is unconstitutional. It also means that students may not pause for a moment of silence at the beginning of their school day. It means that a nativity scene may not be displayed on public property unless there are other displays (e.g. Santa Clause or Christmas trees) that secularize the presentation.

Today's conception of "separation of church and state" has also been used to remove historic crosses from public property, and religious symbols from city seals. It has been used to remove the Ten Commandments from courtrooms, even though they are carved in stone within the architecture of the Supreme Court building. The concept has been used to prevent religious expressions on personalized license plates. And these are but a few of the official applications of the concept, or “law” of "separation of church and state."

One should understand that "separation of church and state" is not actually a law. It is a doctrine, or a legal concept, that has been implemented by the various courts primarily over the last fifty years. If this concept, as originally understood, would have been applied with consistency over the years, America would certainly be a different country right now. Religious expression would flourish, and the courts would not be micromanaging the religious life of the American people.
The doctrine of "separation of church and state" has been used, and is being used, to effectively purge religion from the public square. The historical perspective on church/state issues reveals a much different story. The government was to accommodate the religious communities; religion and religious expression were to be encouraged.



  1. Great post. You did go there, but you did it with grace and your information is great. (Not that anybody who disagrees would care.) Good job.

  2. Albritton5, as're a rockstar! Thanks for the support. :)

  3. "It keeps the government from running the church but makes sure that Christian principles will always stay in government."

    This is completely false. The U.S. Government was not, in any sense of the word, founded upon or intended to follow Christian principles. There is no mention of the Christian religion in the U.S. Constitution; you'd think that there would be if this were the case.

    Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation" was exactly that; a wall between Church and State, with the intent that they both remain completely separate.

    Your logic also begs the question that; even if the framers intended for the U.S. to be a "Christian" nation (which they clearly did not), then does this mean that Christians should be considered a privileged class amongst Americans? Or that the government has the right to allow discrimination against non-Christians? If what you say is true; that Christian principles were to be allowed to influence government, then this sort of discrimination would become institutionalized... so much for freedom and equality for everyone.

    We know what happens when Christianity (or any religion for that matter) influences government---especially when that religion fancies itself as the "one true religion"; discrimination, persecution, and theocracy are all inevitable. So I completely reject your notion that religion should be allowed to influence government, regardless of what you say Jefferson or the framers of our nation intended.

  4. Rick, thanks for your comment on my blog. I'm going to post my comment in both places (here, and on my own blog):

    The part of this discussion where Americans tend to disagree is what constitutes government impedance of the "free exercise of religion". Clearly Barry Goldwater (the founder of modern American conservatism) clearly believed that individual Americans should be free to pursue their faiths without government interference, but he clearly also thought that demands that legislators make laws based on religious morality were un-American.

    Case in point: I am an atheist, but if the ATF shows up to shut down a church for being a church, I'll be the first guy to scream about it. The cases where I, as a pro-Separation conservative, take issue, are where people interpret "no impedance of religion" as "no impedance of religion entering government". If you want to build a Christian monument in a public park or teach Biblical creationism in schools? Not appropriate. To see why, ask yourself if putting a Qu'ran monument on a hill in your town would be okay, or a government mandate that I come into your church and teach evolution on Sundays would be acceptable. Of course not. "Freedom to exercise religion" is an American invention and must be defended, but "freedom to make others tolerate my religion" - which is all too often what people think it means - is not American at all.

  5. musashixxx and homas Paine Jr., thank you for your comments and for placing your names to them.

    Just because the U.S. Constitution doesn't mention "God" or any other keyword relating to religion doesn't mean that the Founding Fathers weren't followers of Christ or that the government wasn't founded on Christian principals.

    There other writings show us a glimpse into there character and personalities.

    The key here is that the Founding Fathers recognized a higher power. Just reading the note to and from Thomas Jefferson showed that God was recognized in their lives. The KEY is that the Church of England was absolute law of the land in Britain. Thus, the Founding Fathers would not wish to come close to empowering the Church in that matter. Faith is a personal matter, something that shapes a person and a people and therefore can influence their decisions. However, to make it a law or governing agent THAT is what allows the bigotry, discrimination and paranoia you described.

    Separating Church and State is not allowing Church to be a governing and dictating law of the land. It's not to keep faith and such principles out of State.

    In God We Trust. Why would this motto be allowed on federal money if there wasn't a need to allow principles to play a role in government? Again, not that these principles become law but they play a role, that they become part of the decision process.

    Your focus is on Christianity when to me its even more basic: faith. Faith that there's more to life than a big bang. That there's an intelligent design. To me, that's the beginning of freedom. The rest is one's own personal journey.

  6. The majority of the founding fathers were Deists; that is, they believed in God, but they didn't believe in a personal God (a God that meddled in the affairs of humans). Furthermore, "In God We Trust" wasn't always on our money and "One Nation Under God" wasn't always in the Pledge Of Allegiance. These are products of the Red Scare of the 1950s and McCarthyism. To me, with knowledge comes freedom. Faith, being belief in something without evidence, seems to be the exact opposite of freedom. My basic point here is that the framers did intend to keep faith, religion, etc. out of government. Here's a more detailed write-up of this:

  7. musashixxx, since you are a fellow historian, perhaps you can appreciate the facts this historian shares:

  8. I have found the difference between Republicans and any other party is religious extremity. Close-minded, hypocritical like yourself or a reflection on all of us. We don't want you on our team....

  9. Chuck, thanks for comment. I disagree with your assessment since "religious extremity" isn't the only difference. We Republicans are conservatives in our philosophies and while there can be Conservative Democrats and Liberal Republicans (which basically sounds like people who can't decide what side of the fence to fall), it's ultimately all about trying to put a label on someone's opinions and beliefs. To categorize them and make it easier to refer to them in reports and conversations.

    You refer to us (me) as close-minded and hypocritical which makes me chuckle. I've only found a mere handful of liberal-thinking people who don't respond immediately or shortly after hearing a conservative viewpoint with name-calling and obnoxious behavior.

    To me, this is the immediate or surface difference between a conservative and a liberal. Rarely do conservatives get into name-calling bashes, yet a liberal refers to a conservative as an "extremist" or "closed-mind" or overall ignorant and stupid.

    Just because someone has a different opinion doesn't make them any of these hateful labels. It certainly doesn't make them wrong. Sometimes the truth is between the two views.

    I'm not sure what "team" you're referring to, however, it appears I was never on it to begin with.

  10. The legislative history of the First Amendment belies the narrow scope you would give it. The first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision, and the courts have wisely interpreted the Amendment to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were Congress precluded only from formally establishing a national church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion--stopping just short of formally establishing a church.

    One often overlooked and sometimes complicated aspect of separation-of-church-and-state issues is the need to distinguish between government and individual speech. Under the First Amendment, individuals are free to express and practice their religious views publicly as well as privately. The government, though, is constrained under the First Amendment not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. When an individual acts in an official capacity on a government matter, he or she should conform to the First Amendment constraints on government. When an individual participates in an official event as an individual rather than as a government agent, he or she presumably has the freedom to express religious views. While figuring out whether someone is acting in an official or private capacity in any given circumstance can be complex, recognizing the distinction is critical.

    The principle of separation of church and state does not "purge religion from the public square"--far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views--publicly as well as privately. The First Amendment's "establishment" clause constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. The First Amendment thus embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise and express his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote his or her views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others.

  11. "To me, this is the immediate or surface difference between a conservative and a liberal. Rarely do conservatives get into name-calling bashes, yet a liberal refers to a conservative as an "extremist" or "closed-mind" or overall ignorant and stupid."

    Whoa whoa whoa...I think there is name-calling on both sides, so let's just avoid this argument. I saw Ed on MSNBC calling Ron Paul a Psycho last night, and I've heard plenty of people on FOX calling Dems communists/socialists/"European". Neither Repubs or Dems are above name-calling, unfortunately.

  12. There is a difference in the names called. A psycho implies mental state, and socialist or communists imply political/economic views and cannot be compared equally.

    Great job on your article. I wish we could shout it from the rooftops.

  13. Anonymous,

    Many thanks for the clarification and support. :)

  14. Jefferson was hardly a church goer - a deist at best. Adams was an Unitarian, you know, didnt believe in the the divinity of Christ. And Franklin, well guess. . .

    dont give me this founding father's religion BS.

    And that whole "separation of Church and State not being in the Constitution" & 50 years of court bit, neither was Brown v, Board. But hey, if you like days of Plessy v Ferguson better - I say do it up! get yourself a website promoting separate but equal! Lets bring back 3/5ths and slavery!!!

  15. Anonymous, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I'm continually entertained by those who feel that a differing opinion must support slavery or be a bigot.

    For your enlightenment, check out the following two links:

  16. 95% of the Founding Fathers were good Christians. Only 2 or 3 of the 55 signers were deists, which was way different than deism today.

    Also see what a supreme court justice appointed by James Madison wrote about the 1st amendment in 1833. ""


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