Isn’t there a division of church and state?
The short answer is that the First Amendment protects religious freedom and prohibits the establishment of a national church and state churches. It was Thomas Jefferson who wrote of the ‘separation between church and State’ in 1802 in a letter to the Danbury Baptists. They were concerned about their tax money supporting the Congregational Church, the state church of Connecticut at that time.
There is more to the story, detailed below.
However, Conservapedia tells us that there was a constitution that had a division of church and state (emphases mine below):
A phrase close to “separation of church and state”, but used for malevolent purposes and expanded to name education, does appear in Article 52 of the constitution of the Soviet Union (1977): “In the USSR, the church is separated from the state, and the school from the church.”
The First Amendment
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads as follows:
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.
Conservapedia makes the argument that the First Amendment has its origins in the Bible:
The protection for free speech was largely motivated to safeguard the preaching of the Bible. Several passages in the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, support a right of free speech, including Numbers 11:26-30 (Moses allowed free speech by declaring, “If only all the people of the LORD were prophets!”); Mark 9:38-41 (admonition by Jesus not to stop strangers who cast out evil in his name).
George Washington’s farewell address
In his farewell address of September 19, 1796, George Washington said:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men & citizens. The mere Politican, equally with the pious man ought to respect & to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private & public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the Oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure–reason & experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Ronald Reagan’s address to the Alabama State Legislature
Nearly 200 years later, on March 15, 1982, Ronald Reagan addressed the Alabama State Legislature:
And I know here that you will agree with me that standing up for America also means standing up for the God, who has so blessed our land. I believe this country hungers for a spiritual revival. I believe it longs to see traditional values reflected in public policy again. To those who cite the first amendment as reason for excluding God from more and more of our institutions and everyday life, may I just say: The first amendment of the Constitution was not written to protect the people of this country from religious values; it was written to protect religious values from government tyranny.
What Jefferson said
In 1801, a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut wrote Thomas Jefferson to ask about about their tax money supporting the Congregational Church, the state church of Connecticut at that time.
On New Year’s Day 1802, Jefferson replied, in part:
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
Connecticut did not change this mandate until 1818. That year, their constitution finally stated:
Article VII. Section 1. It being the duty of all men to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the Universe, and their right to render that worship in the mode most consistent with the dictates or their consciences, no person shall by law be compelled to join or support, nor be classed with, or associated to, any congregation, church, or religious association; but every person now belonging to such congregation, church, or religious association, shall remain a member thereof until he shall have separated himself therefrom, in the manner hereinafter provided. And each and every society or denomination of Christians in this State shall have and enjoy the same and equal powers, rights, and privileges; and shall have power and authority support and maintain the ministers or teachers of their respective denominations, and to build and repair houses for public worship by a tax on the members of any such society only, to be laid by a major vote of the legal voters assembled at any society meeting, warned and held according to law, or in any other manner.”
Jefferson worshipped in Capitol building
Atheists are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson and have adopted him as their secular hero. However, three days after Jefferson wrote his ‘separation between church and state’ letter to the Danbury Baptists (italicised emphasis in the original here, purple emphases mine):
he attended church in the largest congregation in North America at the time. This church held its weekly worship services on government property, in the House Chambers of the U.S. Capitol Building. The wall of separation applies everywhere in the country even on government property , without government interference. This is how it is written in the Constitution, this is how Thomas Jefferson understood it from his letter and actions, and this is how the men who wrote the Constitution practiced it.
Worship in the Capitol ended only after the Civil War. Therefore, it lasted for five decades.
Conservapedia provides more examples of Jefferson’s support of Christianity in government:
David Barton, Founder and President of WallBuilders, states that Jefferson voted that the Capitol building would also serve as a church building, praised the use of a local courthouse as a meeting place for Christian services, urged local governments to make land available specifically for Christian purposes, set aside government lands for the sole use of religious groups, assured a Christian religious school that it would receive “the patronage of the government”, proposed that the Great Seal of the United States depict a story from the Bible and include the word “God” in its motto, and agreed to provide money for a church building and support of clergy. And that like support of religion by the federal government militates against the extreme separatist position.
The Bible and American government
Conservapedia tells us that God is mentioned in all 50 state constitutions.
Until the 1960s, the Bible had a pre-eminent place:
Every new president has made a religious reference in his inaugural address. Dwight D Eisenhower wrote his own prayer. Dr Jerry Newcombe compiled a list of all of these references for the Christian Post just before Donald Trump’s inauguration. (He, too, mentioned God — more than once.) Here are a few:
1. George Washington said, “It would be peculiarly improper to omit, in this first official act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe….”
3. Thomas Jefferson prayed to “that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe.”
6. John Quincy Adams quoted Scripture: “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh in Vain.”
7. Andrew Jackson referred to “the goodness of that Power whose providence mercifully protected our national infancy.”
16. Abraham Lincoln stated, “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty.”
24. William McKinley declared, ” Our faith teaches that there is no safer reliance than upon the God of our fathers.”
25. Theodore Roosevelt thanked “the Giver of Good who has blessed us.”
32. Harry S. Truman referenced “that all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God.”
Dr Newcombe rightly concludes:
The atheists are the Johnny-come-latelies. Demands to ban God and the Bible from the Inauguration should be denied.
It is not surprising that many Americans and other people around the world now think that Christians in the United States are being unreasonable when they lament that the Ten Commandments have been removed from county courthouses along with Christmas crèches on government property.
I grew up with these displays. No one ever had a problem with them, other than the occasional crank.
However, all that changed in the 1960s. In addition to Madalyn Murray O’Hair‘s successful case against school prayer which effectively banned it — along with Bible readings — in state schools, the Supreme Court under Earl Warren dramatically changed the way all of us view the First Amendment (emphases in the original here):
Jefferson simply quotes the First Amendment then uses a metaphor, the “wall”, to separate the government from interfering with religious practice. Notice that the First Amendment puts Restrictions only on the Government, not the People! The Warren Court re-interpreted the First Amendment thus putting the restrictions on the People! Today the government can stop you from Praying in school, reading the Bible in school, showing the Ten Commandments in school, or have religious displays at Christmas. This is quite different from the wall Jefferson envisioned, protecting the people from government interference with Religious practice.
Therefore, one could make the case that over the past 50 years, America has been drifting in practice towards a Soviet-style restriction on Christian displays, the Bible and prayer outside the home on government property.
If you think I am exaggerating, stories have been appearing in local newspapers and conservative websites over the past 12 years about teachers who have taken Bibles away from children silently reading them during lunch hour. There was an instance in Texas in 2003 I remember where the teacher took a child’s New Testament away at lunch hour and threw it in the wastebasket. He was not allowed to retrieve it.
In June 2016, WND published an article about a school in Palmdale, California, where a seven-year-old got his classmates interested in the Bible verses and stories his mother gave him every morning. The mother intended for her son to have religious encouragement during the day. She was not attempting to proselytise. However, the child was so thrilled by these verses that he couldn’t help but share them with others at lunchtime. It wasn’t long before his friends asked him for copies of the verses and stories. One girl who received a story showed it to the teacher, commenting on its beauty:
Then, however, C [the boy] was reprimanded by his teacher in front of the whole class, twice, and told to stop talking about religion or sharing his mother’s notes, and he went home in tears, Liberty Counsel said.
Even as the crowd of students asking for the after-school Bible notes grew, on May 9, Principal Melanie Pagliaro approached Zavala [the mother] and demanded that the notes only be handed out somewhere beyond school property.
With the school not satisfied with only the banishment, Liberty Counsel said, “a Los Angeles deputy sheriff knocked at the door of C’s home, demanding that C’s note-sharing cease altogether because ‘someone might be offended.’” …
The letter to the district said Liberty Counsel, “having reviewed the above facts, district policies, and applicable law, it is clear that the actions of the district staff in this instance, in prohibiting voluntary student religious expression during non-instructional time; then completely banning such student expression from school property entirely, and finally calling the police to report the same are simply unconstitutional.”
“These actions must be disavowed and reversed, to avoid liability for civil rights violations,” the letter said.
It gave the district a deadline for responding of June 1, which was ignored.
I think this will change — somewhat — over the next four years. While the Ten Commandments might not make a comeback in courthouses, Christmas crèches are likely to reappear. And teachers might start to lay off students sharing the Bible at lunchtime.
Tomorrow: Religious persecution and state churches in American colonies