Why Did We Separate Church and State?

Posted on July 3, 2017


We tend to consider the Constitution as almost sacred script, not to be tampered with or changed, like the Bible. But, of course, we must interpret its grand principles since it was composed more than two centuries ago in another age. Today’s crazy world of social media was, for example, not even dreamed about in the worst or best hallucinations of the eighteenth century.

Have you ever wondered why we separated Church and State? Thomas Jefferson elaborated on it a bit by writing a letter in 1802 to a group of Baptists in Connecticut that a “wall of separation [was built] between Church and State.” This was Jefferson’s way of interpreting the Constitution’s First Amendment which says that government shall make no law “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

For you legal Beagles who often cite the “separation of church and state” in your arguments, disquisitions, diatribes, and other assorted written and spoken rhetorical bric a brac, don’t go looking in the Constitution for the phrase. It isn’t there.

Legal scholars and just about anybody else with a passing interest in how your church relates to government can, and will, argue the merits and significance of this “establishment” clause in the First Amendment until the cows come home.
Those who come across as “experts” in the matter we used to call “sea lawyers” in the fleet, a nice term for “know-it-alls” of whom we seem to have a surfeit in our modern world. And if they don’t know it all, they simply invent it and pass it off as truth. But I digress.

The question I address is not how to interpret either the First Amendment, or Jefferson’s take on the issue, but why did the Founding Fathers separate the two? We can return to the first issue in another column.

Basically it was to prevent the church from interfering and influencing the course and nature of governance in the land. By the church, I’m writing largely of Christianity in the main, but other religions, like Islam or Hinduism, have been just as guilty as Christianity of forcing–through control of the State–everyone in the land to conform to the “official” religion of the state.

Here’s one example of why our Founding Fathers felt rather prickly about the Church continuing its role in our new experiment in republicanism and liberty. In the England of the times, the Church of England was the “official” faith of the state. You could worship differently—think Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists for example—but you were required to pay your tithes to the Church of England and you were constrained by law and traditions, unless you were a member in good standing with the Church.

That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? How about burning someone at the stake for not conforming to the official religion of the land?

Decapitating is a popular way of removing unbelievers from the purists among ISIS/radical Islam these days

In India, today, a prominent Hindu is militating against Christians and Muslims, even promoting a forced conversion initiative called Ghar Wapsi.

Returning to Christianity, one need only travel to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to find similar examples of Christian intolerance.
When the Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, posted his criticism of indulgences on the church doors at Wittenberg Oct. 31, 1517, he set off a firestorm within Christianity.

Protestant followers of Luther, and his contemporaries such as John Calvin, and the Catholic hierarchy clashed violently. To read and recount what Christians did to each other is gruesome and astounding as Protestants and Catholics indulged in massive violence, torture and executions to enforce what each side considered was true religious orthodoxy.

Is it any wonder that the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams determined to separate the church from the state to try and prevent similar scenarios in the newly independent republic?

They understood that the Church had to be protected and so “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is, in one way, but, as we all know, it can get complicated in the extreme as we try to imagine how our forefathers might interpret a document, our Constitution, written in the eighteenth century in our world of tweets, cell phones, nuclear missiles, and flying machines.

We need H. G. Wells’ time machine to travel back and query Jefferson and Madison. What a great interview that would make.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday March 26, 2017 as Why Have Separation of Church and State?