First, let me get the disclosure out of the way. I grew up in a household that went to church every Sunday. We were all required to attend Sunday school. We always said grace before each meal. I also attended a secular public school. My only child is currently a student in a public school.
That’s quite a build up for this entry, isn’t it? Well, I was sitting up a few nights ago reading through the news, fishing for a topic for discussion. I don’t remember the inspiration, but I decided to do a search of the internet for discussions on the so called “separation of church and state”. As you may already know, the U.S. government now recognizes that there is a separation between all of the things we associate with “the church” and those things we think of as “government” or “public funded”. Some people think that this is a good thing – something that is addressed by the most basic law of our land, the U.S. Constitution. There are also those that believe that the framers of the Constitution had no intention to create the kind of separation between church and state that exists today. I was not interested in a complete reading on the topic, so I decided to look only at the pages that argued the opposite side of the issue I plan to take up. I know my arguments, so I figured I didn’t have to read someone else saying the same thing. What I really wanted to do is see if someone out there could convince me that the other side of the issue has merit. I am a firm believer in a distinct separation.
The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of God. There are no references to a higher power or a supreme being. Religion is mentioned once, and it is in the first amendment: “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.” That’s it, just one quarter of one sentence. While short, it seems clear to me. Government was not supposed to be in the business of establishing, ratifying or ordaining an official religion of the United States; or anything related, regarding or making reference to the establishment a religion.
1. The act of establishing; a ratifying or ordaining; settlement; confirmation.
5. To have regard to; to have reference to; to relate to.
(Source: Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.)
After reading what others have to say, it seems the opposition breaks down something like this… 1) the separation of church and state is a myth perpetuated by a misguided generation; or, 2) the framers of the constitution did not intend the kind of “firewall” between church and state as exists to today. Is it possible that the whole separation thing is a myth? All this time we’ve been played for the fool? The courts apparently don’t think so, but then again the courts are not infallible. That leads us to the framer’s intent. Did they, with that one line, in the frame of mind that they were in, intend things as they are today. I’ll start by saying that they had not idea what “today” would bring. From what I know, they had no illusion that the circumstances of the late 18th century would hold for two hundred plus years. Things change and I’ve been lead to believe that they knew this. I do know that they were seeking to do something different than the governments they sought to free themselves from. People came to this country from places where state sanctioned religion was a seen as a tyranny. The popular story is that many of the original settlers of this “new world” were people seeking the freedom to worship God as they chose to, not how others told them. Looking at the issue in that light, I believe they would have wanted exactly the kind of firewall that exists today, that the separation is not a myth.
But what do we make of the obvious faith of the framers and the numerous references to God in their writings, particularly the Federalist Papers – written to convince the population that the new Constitution was a good thing? I have not actually read all of the Federalist Papers. I have read the excerpts that some have used to back up the claim that a firewall separation was not intended. They speak of seeking counsel with the almighty in the process in drafting the constitution, of this land being a gift from God, and the importance of religious rights. It is plain that God was prominent in the lives of many of the framers, but do these sentiments in their writings necessarily mean that the separation is a concocted myth? They wrote that their faith saw them through the difficult task of writing the constitution. Faith in God saw them through this difficulty, just as it doubtless had in other trying times. Does this necessarily mean they wanted religion in government? They were thankful that God had provided such a land where they could be free. Does that mean that they would have supported religion in their government? I would submit to you that the answer is no. Why? Can’t you see the difference between crediting your faith for getting you through your individual struggles and mandating that same faith be part and parcel of the government you are creating? In the alternative, is it possible that the framers felt that if all ties to government were cut from religion that faith and religion would increase – that this separation would foster faith in God by allowing people the freedom to worship in the manner of their choosing? I wish I knew the original source, but I saw a documentary on the Discovery Channel which made the claim that, in the 19th century, the U.S. had one of the highest rates of regular church-going folks in the world. Further, a 1997 study by the University of Michigan claims “…weekly church attendance is higher in the United States than in any other nation at a comparable level of development”. If my alternative hypothesis about the framer’s intent is correct, it would seem their plan was a success.
The big “separation” debate these days involves school prayer. What does school prayer have to do with the separation of church and state? Praying to God is practicing religion. Public schools are funded and administered by the government. This is an example of government establishing religion. Do I think prayer would help students in school? Believe it or not, I do. However, there is a greater good – avoiding the tyranny of the majority that I believed the framers were trying to avoid. No one should feel forced into religion, and certainly not by public schools or our government. Are there examples where extreme and unusual events occur in the name of “separation of church and state”? Of course there are. Supervisors banning the wearing of crucifixes in the work place in government; you name it and it’s probably happened. The churches of the world should be the first to know that bad people will twist good ideas to justify their misdeeds.
There is a difference between having personal faith and using position in government to promote faith. I am a state government worker. I am allowed to wear religious jewelry in the work place. I am allowed to talk with my coworkers about my faith when I am off the clock. I am allowed to pray to God to ask for help when I am having trouble and I am allowed to thank him when things go well. That is very different from telling the people under me when it is time to pray. That is very different from engaging in evangelism with our clients. I think this is just what the framers did… they leaned on their faith in a very personal manner, but they didn’t fashion their government to be appendage of their faith.
The separation of church and state does nothing to restrict the rights of the religious, it is meant only to curtail the government and those that act on its behalf. I believe that this has been the impact of the first amendment. This is a good thing… it makes us all more free, not less so.
Sources/Reading which lead to this entry: