Why We Separated Church and State

Posted on January 1, 2011


We make a big deal of the separation of Church and State in our country.

Why do we keep the two separated, by Constitution, law, and tradition? Or, at least try to keep them separated.

This is a hot button issue, guaranteed to get everyone’s dander up on either side of the line dividing Church and State. Just sitting on the line can be uncomfortable. Witness the debate on Islam today in America.

So why did we separate the two, rather than embrace Christianity openly at the time the Constitution came into existence?

Some of the answers are obvious. We were pretty angry with everything English at the time of the American Revolution, and since the English had an “official” church, logically enough the “Church of England,” we decided we would not have an official church like the English.

We didn’t want an English king—George III–, we didn’t want Parliament telling us what to do, we had no need of nobles and lords who thought themselves better than everyone, and we certainly didn’t need an official church to oversee how a free people ought to behave.

But the issues go deeper than rejecting things English simply because they were English, although that was pretty important. Feelings hardened during more than five years of bitter warfare, and these were then translated into the new country’s Constitution and eventually the “separation of church and state” became part of our tradition and culture.

But Church and State, separated, was a pretty novel concept in the way people governed themselves. At least in the Western tradition, the Church had always been part of the State. Why change it now?

The reasons are filled with ambiguities, and are both simple and complex. At the heart of it was the devotion by the Founding Fathers to put religion in its place so the persecution that marked religious strife over the centuries would play no role in the new Republic.

Ironically the Christianity of peace and love had been corrupted by human manipulation. Persecution of those who differed from you instead of the love of Christ was more often the norm than the exception in the centuries preceding the American Revolution.

Secondly, a new wave of secularism was sweeping across the Western world. Called the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, it lifted man and his abilities to near co-equal status with God. The apparatus of the Church was thought outmoded and so unbendingly traditional that it could not change with the times and give way to the new rational, scientific man.

In this fertile milieu of change, the Americans—your ancestors and mine—experimented with how to institutionalize radical doctrines being bandied around by the leading political philosophers of the times. Included in this package of ideas was the concept that all men were equal, at least in theory, and that the Church needed to be disengaged from the power of the State, or “disestablished” in the language of the times.

After all, why had the Pilgrims and Puritans left England for the new world in the early seventeenth century? They fled from religious persecution as every schoolchild in America learns.

They left to be free to worship as they pleased. That they soon threw out Roger Williams and sent him packing to Rhode Island because he did not conform to their beliefs made a mockery of their convictions, and convinced other Americans over the next century and a half to keep intolerant religionists out of government. This was the evolving principle of the separation of Church from State at work.

Or as Roger Williams, one of the earliest exponents of the separation of Church and State, so colorfully phrased it, “forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”

So the Founding Fathers separated the Church from the State. But in the same metaphorical breath, they also provided for freedom of religion.

In fact, it was a fascinating kickoff to the new republic, which itself was a political throwback to the Greeks. That the grand experiment has lasted until today demonstrates the extraordinary staying power of some of these radical principles incorporated into the fabric of the new Republic, not the least of which was separating the Church from the State.

Posted in: History