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Separation of Belief and State

Separation of Belief and State

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The separation of church and state is one of those phrases that, because of over-use and mis-use, has basically lost any semblance of a shared and recognizable meaning.  While this represents a larger challenge of language becoming less specific and too general for effective use, this particular phrase losing its specificity and historical context has really altered public thinking and perspective.  From the conversations that I’ve observed on this topic’s applicability, the disagreeing persons all too often pass each other like ships in the night, never really understanding where the other is coming from, though they’re discussing the same phrase and its implications.

The assumptions and passions surrounding the idea of the separation of church and state need no excessive descriptions, for they are enormous and powerful enough.  This one idea has had an unbelievably potent affect on the shaping of American government and policy.  My contention would be that the confusion surrounding the origins and implications of this phrase is thicker than pea soup.

Without total confidence, I would humbly submit that the confusion on this subject mainly manifests itself in three misunderstandings:

1. That the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, or any of our other founding documents actually include the phrase separation of church and state.
2. That value-laden beliefs are somehow particular only to expressly ‘religious thinking.’
3. That value-laden beliefs cannot or should not be incorporated into the public discourse or public policy.

You’ll notice that fist issue is historical and factual in nature, while the next two are theoretical in nature.

The very first line of this piece of writing is the actual text of the beginning of the U.S. Constitution’s 1st Amendment.  You’ll see that the words separation of church and state are not apart of that.  Further, the phrase does not show itself anywhere in the entire Constitution, Declaration of Independence, or any other American founding document – not at all, none, not once, literally nowhere.  This should be simple enough, but somehow it is widely believed that the phrase is somewhere in our founding documents.  So if it’s not there, where did it come from?

Let’s take an abbreviated look at the history of this phrase.  Separation of church and state actually came from a letter that the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut.  This Baptist group had written Thomas Jefferson a letter of congratulations and support upon his election.  At the time the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written, many states actually had state-established churches, Connecticut being one of them–they were officially a Congregationalist state. Those in Connecticut, both Congregationalists and dissenters, were required to pay taxes to support the church, penalized for not attending church on Sunday, and all positions of influence in public life were for professing Congregationalists only. 1

The Danbury Baptists were unhappy with their station in life, because they were somewhat persecuted and didn’t have the same rights in Connecticut as Congregationalists did.  Amazingly, this group wasn’t asking the new President to assist them with their problem; they even acknowledged in the letter that they knew he as U.S. President had no authority to challenge a single state establishing their own religious denomination (showing us how different the idea of Federalism is today than it was in the early 1800s).

Excerpt from the Danbury Baptist Association’s letter to Jefferson:

“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.”

Jefferson’s response was not one of haste, for he actually asked his postmaster general and attorney general for their input on his letter back to this Baptist association.  Jefferson was aware that his words would be known publicly, and it is historically clear that he used his words for “sowing useful truths and principles” in the minds of the American people. 2

Excerpt from Jefferson’s letter back to the Danbury Baptist Association:

“…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. 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.”

A few things are important to take notice of.  The first is that when the federal Constitution was adopted, it did not end individual states having established churches (they were later disestablished through various means, state constitutions being a primary way).  This is because the words in the first amendment are singular to Congress – it is that Congress will make no law respecting the establishment of religion, not that no individual state will.  A second important fact is that when Thomas Jefferson was the Governor of Virginia, he decreed days of fasting and prayer, which would seem odd for someone who wrote the words above.  However, when he become President, he refused to issue such days on a national scale, indicating that he interpreted the role of the U.S. President and a state Governor as largely different [Note – the two Presidents before Jefferson did issue such religious days nationally, showing there was even different perspectives amongst the founders]. Thirdly, this should tell us that the “establishment of religion” had a pretty specific meaning when the Constitution was adopted – it literally meant having a state-sponsored, official church.  The separation of church and state, as a phrase, was never an agreed upon law; it was a notion of Jefferson, which certainly meant something specific.

Moving from history to modern thinking, it is common to believe that value-laden beliefs are somehow particular only to expressly “religious thinking.”  I would contend that this is a mistake.  I believe this because it’s not just the expressly religious that have foundational, unprovable beliefs and opinions, it is everyone, absolutely everyone, whatever they profess.  All ideas, opinions, and positions come from somewhere, they do not spring up out of nowhere.  Everyone, whether they can articulate it or not, has a basic way of seeing the world (worldview) which informs their thoughts and opinions on things.  There is no person capable of thinking that doesn’t hold opinions, even passionate opinions.  One holds passionate opinions because of base-beliefs, whether that is identified as atheistic, agnostic, Christian, Buddhist, or unidentified altogether.  Just imagine Richard Dawkins, Pope Benedict XVI, David Cameron, Tim Keller, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – all very different, all holding to markedly different foundational beliefs, yet all hold value-laden beliefs on the host of modern issues.  And I’ll guarantee that those value-laden beliefs are inextricably linked to their foundational views.

But beyond all this, the real concern to us is what the separation of church and state does and should mean today.

Today, it’s popular for people to interpret even the discussion of religion/beliefs/values in public life as somehow a breach of the separation of church and state.Why? Because the prevailing view is this: to bring belief-informed opinions into the public debate is to break faith with the concept of a public discourse untainted with personal religious opinion.

If that in itself is breaking the 1st Amendment, then it is impossible for anyone to follow the 1st Amendment.  The key fallacy here is that it’s possible to separate personal opinion from influencing public discourse and policy–the perceived public/private divide is fallacious.  The point here being that when people come into the public square, everyone brings with them ideas stemming from core beliefs, whether or not they can or do articulate those core beliefs.  So it’s a mistake to view a technically ‘religious’ person walking into the public square with foundational beliefs and a technically ‘non-religious’ person walking into the public square without foundational beliefs as fundamentally different, they’re not.  Everyone holds value-laden beliefs, formed from a whole life of teaching, experience, and circumstances.  To exemplify this point, imagine the high-profile, aggressive, and late Christopher Hitchens (let it be known that I’m saddened by his recent death).  Though claiming no truths tied to a creator, this man had a hearty abundance of opinions which he ferociously defended.  He spoke and wrote on everything political, from war to socialism to drugs to abortion to water-boarding.  Now, I don’t believe anyone would come out and claim that Hitchens’ public views were illegitimate because they came from an atheistic or secular foundation.  But we do hear people come out and claim that others’ views are illegitimate because they come from a theistic foundation.  Contrast Hitchens with a pastor or civic leader that speaks out for a legal definition of marriage that excludes people of the same sex.  It is very common to hear that this person’s view is illegitimate as applied to civil law because his or her religious beliefs have informed the stated opinion.  There’s a discrepancy here because both theistic and atheistic foundational premises are un-provable and lead to opinions – so why a difference in their applicability to civil law?

Religion is nothing more than a specific and organized system of foundational beliefs – and while the actual establishment of a particular religion is prohibited federally and in now states (which is a great thing, by the way), having core beliefs affect policy ideas is not the establishment of a religion.  As well, it is impossible for anyone to prevent their core beliefs from affecting their ideas on public policy.  No question of public concern can begin to be answered without drawing upon foundational beliefs.

To the founders, the notion of separating church and state never meant prohibiting core beliefs from influencing policy.  This wouldn’t make sense because it isn’t possible–there would be no framework to consider people or policy in if there are no foundational beliefs.  The truth is that every single law is some type of moral imposition, because every idea can be traced back to some unprovable moral assertion.  Even the smallest of things, like standing in line instead of pushing at the DMV, are traced back to moral ideas about order and fairness – rules and core beliefs are absolutely inseparable.

We in the U.S. exist in a pluralistic society.  We have people from diverse backgrounds with diverse beliefs.  It is those very beliefs, again, which inform each person’s ideas and opinions.  They then bring those belief-informed ideas and opinions into the public square to be evaluated and debated.  No one can individually force their beliefs on others, because we all have representation.  It’s a truly great system.  It is either incorrect or disingenuous to declare that the separation of church and state means something beyond this–in a historic sense or in a definitional sense.  Even the idea of one having a viewpoint or policy position without foundational beliefs of some sort is absurd, and yet, it’s often counted reasonable to assert that foundational beliefs can’t be brought into public arguments.

In short, it’s unfortunate that in our times, when people reference the separation of church and state, they usually don’t mean it in the sense that Jefferson meant it.  What they really mean is the separation of belief and state – an idea that is not only theoretically destructive, but truly impossible.

Mark Earley

About The Author

Mark L. Earley Jr. studied Political Science, History, and English at Virginia Tech. He’s worked in Virginia state government and the non-profit sector. He’s a student at the University of Richmond Law School and the husband of Mary Alice.

Number of Entries : 6

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