Separation of Church and State

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What did the separation of church and state originally mean?

In the past we’ve discussed how the idea of religious liberty began with the Anabaptists and continued with the Baptists. This idea ultimately led the United States to become the first nation in world history to recognize religious liberty as a basic human right. However, after the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut was still concerned that these rights were not permanent. In a letter to the newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson they wrote, “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, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.” They then expressed concern that religious liberty was merely a grant by the government rather than a right given by God. They wrote, “…Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation, and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of State) we enjoy as favor granted, and not as inalienable rights.” In other words, if the right of religious liberty was merely a grant of the state rather than an inalienable right endowed by our Creator, then the state could decide in one act of legislation to take that right away.

In Jefferson’s reply, he agreed that, “Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God…” and then he wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and 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.” Jefferson assured the Danbury Baptists that religious liberty was a natural right, divinely endowed, rather than a right merely granted by the federal government.

Today, many use the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ as the impetus to cleanse the American government of all vestige of religion, including religious symbols. The separation of church and state is now interpreted to mean freedom ‘from’ religion, not freedom ‘of’ religion. The original intent was not a federal government that was anti-religious, but a federal government that would not favor one Christian denomination over another.  Jefferson and the other founding fathers certainly did not think the federal government should be atheistic. Those who believe the government should default to atheism in all governmental institutions, including our schools, ignore the fact that atheism is a religious belief and therefore violates the establishment clause.

Contrary to the beliefs of the historical revisionists of our time, our founding fathers did not intend to create a government that was anti-religious. They understood that the liberties guaranteed to the citizens of the United States were based upon a Christian worldview. The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights…” It was important to the founding fathers that this government recognize a higher authority than itself.  They understood if our rights were endowed by the government alone they could not be permanently guaranteed.

In 1781 Thomas Jefferson wrote, “God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

James Madison, known as the Chief Architect of the Constitution, and the fourth President of the United States, wrote in 1785, “Religion [is] the basis and Foundation of Government.” That same year he wrote, “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage…Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe.”

Samuel Chase, a Supreme Court appointee of George Washington and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, stated, “By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of the Christians are placed upon the same equal footing, and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty.”

George Washington signed into law the Northwest Ordinance in 1789. Article III reads, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

John Adams, the second President of the United States, wrote, “Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”

In 1952 the United State Supreme Court stated, in the case of Zorach v. Clauson, “We are a religious people and our institutions presuppose a Supreme Being…” In the case of Lynch v. Donnelly in 1985, the Supreme Court stated, “There is an unbroken history of official acknowledgement by all three branches of government of the role of religion in American life…The Constitution does not require a complete separation of church and state. It affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions and forbids hostility towards any.”

Many more citations could be given to show that Christianity and the Bible are the axioms upon which our government is based. However, many today are adamantly denying this connection. If our government refuses to acknowledge the authority of our Creator who has endowed us with certain inalienable rights, then the erosion of our rights and liberties will surely follow.

Article by Pastor Billy Elkins.


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