Thursday, September 27, 2012

Separation of Church and State

My son is a historian, and retains a ridiculous amount of information in his brain about the world--practically from the dawn of civilization. When our kids were in middle school, after a particularly animated conversation at the dinner table, E said, "It's probably best to start with the premise that J is always right."  And I'm pretty sure his friends have discovered this about him more than once in their associations with him.  A person thinks they know something, something so true we take it completely for granted, then J comes along and debunks that notion completely.

For example, tonight he was telling me about how a friend of his was certain that the principle of separation of church and state comes from the 14th amendment to the Constitution. But it doesn't, J told me. In fact, it's not in the Constitution at all. Really. He looked it up for me so I could see for myself, and sure enough, it's nowhere to be found. The idea was first coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The phrase he used was, "a wall of separation between church and state." The point he was making in this letter was that 'religion' is a private matter between a person and his/her God, and that government should not interfere with that.

And here's another interesting fact about this principle that we consider almost 'sacred' in our country: The Supreme Court did not use that exact phrase in relation to the First Amendment rights--"that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of a religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"--until the 1870s. However, it wasn't until 1947 that the Court actually considered the question of how this applied to the states, in Everson v. Board of Education.

What a progression, huh? Within the rights of the First Amendment is the right to worship and practice our faith. But not only is there no sense that all government, public, educational activities are to be kept separate from faith, but in the first 150 years, work and study and prayer were not seen and indivisible from each other. And that said notion came from the pen of Jefferson in a semi-private letter, and ended up as one of the lasting 'walls' of society reminds me of the exact progression of our country in many ways.

A week or so ago, a pastor friend said that we're now living in what is termed, 'post-Christendom.'  And it seems to me that the garden path we've been led down in privatizing our faith is emblematic of whatever that post- implies. More people don't go to church than do. More don't believe in God than do. More aren't than are.

And He weeps.
And we should weep as well.

Go into all the world, He told us. I've been chewing on my friend's words for the last week, thinking that even if we've gone into all the world once, maybe we have to start over. Go out. Go into. Be with those who don't believe, who don't go to church, who are tax collectors and sinners.  Maybe we need to break down that wall of separation between church and state, and say there is NO place God does not belong. We need Him to come in. Wherever we are, whatever we are doing. In schools, in our jobs--and certainly, certainly in our government. We need Him to come in!

2 comments:

Doug Indeap said...

1 .Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of "We the people" (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day, the founders' avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

That the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, to some who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and, upon learning they were mistaken, reckon they’ve discovered a smoking gun solving a Constitutional mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to name one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation--in those very words--of the founders' intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that were the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

Doug Indeap said...

2 .While the First Amendment limited only the federal government, the Constitution was later amended to protect from infringement by states and their political subdivisions the privileges and immunities of citizenship, due process, and equal protection of the laws. The courts naturally have looked to the Bill of Rights for the important rights thus protected by the 14th Amendment and have ruled that it effectively extends the First Amendment’s guarantees vis a vis the federal government to the states. While the founders drafted the First Amendment to constrain the federal government, they certainly understood that later amendments could extend the Bill of Rights' constraints to state and local governments.

It is instructive to recall that the Constitution's separation of church and state reflected, at the federal level, a "disestablishment" political movement then sweeping the country. That political movement succeeded in disestablishing all state religions by the 1830s. (Side note: A political reaction to that movement gave us the term "antidisestablishmentarianism," which amused some of us as kids.) It is worth noting, as well, that this disestablishment movement largely coincided with another movement, the Great Awakening. The people of the time saw separation of church and state as a boon, not a burden, to religion.

This sentiment was recorded by a famous observer of the American experiment: "On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention. . . . I questioned the members of all the different sects. . . . I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point." Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).