Separation of Church and State

By Reed Benson

Almost every American has heard the phrase separation of church and state repeatedly over the course of recent decades. It has become a pliable tool in the hands of the political left as they pursue a policy of systematic abolition of Christian principles from any institution in the United States. What does this phrase really mean? From where did it originate? Is the meaning that liberals assign to it truly consistent with legal and political history of our nation?

Scripture provides a clear warning to us. From Psalms we read: "If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalms 11:3). The historic foundations of the United States of America are fundamentally Christian. Sadly, however, the biblical edifice upon which our beloved national institutions were built is being dissolved before our very eyes through a re-interpretation of the phrase separation of church and state. Some will be surprised to learn that this statement does not appear in any of our nation’s founding documents. It does not appear in the Constitution, Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Federalist Papers, or any other basic national document. From where, then, did it come?

In 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote a letter to President Thomas Jefferson regarding a rumor they had heard. They feared the federal government was about to establish a particular denomination as the national church. Responding on January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote to allay their worries: "I contemplate with solemn reverence that the 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." In the letter, Jefferson actually lifted the phrase wall of separation from Rodger Williams, an early and notable American Baptist. The context of the phrase, as used by Williams, was that the church should be separated from the pollution of the world by a protective wall. This wall, however, was one-directional, in that the church could exercise influence on the world and the state, but the world and the state could not influence the church. This one-directional wall envisioned by Williams and embraced by Jefferson was the common and accepted understanding of church-state relation for the next 150 years. Other writing of Jefferson clearly indicates this was his intent when he used this phrase. For example, in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, he wrote: "no power over the freedom of religion . . . [is] delegated to the United States by the Constitution."

Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist remained in obscurity until 1878, when the Supreme Court used it in Reynolds vs. United States to defend the ides that basic Christian principles do indeed have a role in our national life. Using the phrase in this context was completely consistent with the intent of the founding fathers, as well as numerous court cases. There is no question that the first amendment was intended to prevent the national government from establishing a state denomination, but was not intended to prevent the inclusion of Christian principles into national institutions. A survey of just a small sampling of available historical data will demonstrate this is the case: the founders wished to see American public institutions remain Christian.

Consider some of the following words spoken by those who were among the most influential at the formation of the Republic. George Washington stated: " It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible." Else where he remarked: "Without an humble imitation of the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion . . . we can never hope to be a happy nation." One of the most outstanding early American leaders was Patrick Henry, who declared: "It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists [pluralism], but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ." Please observe this clear statement by James Madison, the man the most responsible for the Constitution: "We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God." Our second President, John Adams, had these comments: "Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other . . . The Christian religion is above, all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient of modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity, and humanity." His son, John Quincy Adams, a brilliant statesman, diplomat, and president, also had something worthy to note: "The birthday of the nation is indissolubly linked with the birthday of the Saviour [and] forms a leading event in the progress of the gospel dispensation . . . The Declaration of Independence first organized the social compact on the foundation of the Redeemer’s mission upon earth [and] laid the cornerstone of human government upon the first precepts of Christianity." John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court had this to say: "Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christian as their rulers."

Not only do personal quotations of those instrumental in founding the American republic prove that Christianity was part of our national institutions, but so also do numerous statements issued by the courts and legislatures. Please note this remark made by the New York Supreme Court in 1811: "The morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrine of worship of [other religions] . . . [In] people whose manners are refined, and morals have been elevated and inspired with a more enlarged benevolence, [it is] by means of the Christian religion." The Pennsylvania Supreme Court made a similar statement in 1824: "No free government now exists in the world, unless where Christianity is acknowledged, and is the religion of the country . . . Christianity is part of the common law . . . It is the purest system of morality . . . and only stable support of all human laws." In further support of this thought, note these words of the United States Supreme Court in the case Abner vs. Kneeland, 1838 "[The first Amendment] embraces all who believe in the existence of God, as well . . . as Christians of every denomination . . . This provision does not extend to atheists, because they do not believe in god or religion; and therefore . . . their sentiments and professions, whatever they may be cannot be called religious sentiments and professions." Congress operated upon the same premises. Observe these remarks made by House Judiciary Committee in 1854: "Religion . . . must be considered as the foundation on which the whole structure rests . . . in this age there can be no substitute for Christianity . . . the great conservative element on which we must rely for the purity and permanence of free institutions . . . in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of gospel of Jesus Christ." Perhaps the strongest and clearest statement was made by the Supreme Court in 1892 in its ruling in the case Church of the Holy Trinity vs. United States: "This is a religious people. This is historically true. From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation . . . these are not individual sayings, declaration of private persons: they are organic utterances; they speak the voice of the entire people . . . these and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation."

Many other pieces of evidence could be cited to prove that our founding fathers and the several generation of the national leaders that followed them all held the same view regarding church and state relations: the state cannot impose its will upon the church and the exercise of Christian liberties, but basic Christian precepts must be an integrated aspect of state institutions in order to maintain their soundness.

This was the intent of Jefferson’s phrase separation of church and state, as he lifted the words from Rodger Williams. This was, indeed, the original intent to the First Amendment; Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Constitutional framers were not attempting to keep religious Christian principles out of national institutions, but simply to prevent the federal government from establishing a state denomination. This is the true original intent and context of both the First Amendment and Jefferson’s oft quoted phrase.

Unfortunately, by the first part of the twentieth century, a new Constitutional philosophy began to emerge. Rather than "strictly" interpreting the Constitution in conformance with the literal words of the document, courts began to "loosely" interpret the words and the phrases of the text, and assign new meanings to the document. This new philosophy of "loose constructionism" allows for the Constitution to be re-interpreted so that rulings that would formerly have been considered plainly unconstitutional can now be reckoned as consistent with the document. This new philosophy is actually an outgrowth of evolutionary relativism—that is, every generation of Americans has the right to determine what is best and can re-interpret the Constitution to suit contemporary wishes. It is remarkably similar to the attitude developed by ancient Israelites during periods of apostasy. Note this verse from the book of Judges: "In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes." (Judges 21:25). Just as they had no king to declare God’s absolutes of right and wrong, so we in our time are destroying our right and wrong, so we in our time are destroying our "king", the Constitution, so that absolutes of right and wrong will no longer vex our rebellious spirits.

Thus in 1947, because of the growing dominance of loose constructionism, Jefferson’s phrase was used with the meaning we are accustomed to hearing today. In the case Everson vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court wrote: "The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. The wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach." With this statement, the Court assigned a new meaning to Jefferson’s phrase and the First Amendment asserting that Christian principles had no place in national institutions. The Court thus began the process we have witnessed since then—the unraveling of 180 years of history, tradition, and legal precepts that allowed Christian principles to be integrated into the state, but prohibited the state from interfering with religious liberty.

If our national institutions cannot be returned to their foundations in Christian principles, our nation cannot long survive. May we each do our part as God-fearing citizens to restore our Christian heritage.


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