Separation of Church and State?
Our nation’s capital has many indicators of our country’s religious heritage. Indeed, a host of references to God, Christ, and the Bible literally riddle the monuments and government buildings. The writings of the Founding Fathers are also filled with their belief in what they called “true religion”—referring to Christianity. They believed in the God of the Bible—to the exclusion of all others—and they believed that atheism was foolish thinking.
But if these statements are true—and abundant evidence exists to prove them1—why do so many claim that the Founding Fathers and the Constitution require “separation of church and state”? Why do courts, judges, and politicians say that there should be no crosses, or Bibles, or other Christian objects in public schools, government buildings, or public parks? Did those who actually wrote the Constitution agree with them? Did the Founders believe that public expressions of Christianity should not be allowed?
In the 1947 U.S. Supreme Court case Everson v. Board of Education, the high court declared: “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” The court clearly understood the “wall” metaphor to refer to expunging all references to God, the Bible, and Christianity from public life. But where did they get such an idea? After all, the phrase “separation of church and state” is not even found in the U.S. Constitution or any other official government document. Indeed, the late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist labeled the phrase “a misleading metaphor” and noted: “The ‘wall of separation between church and State’ is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.”2
The phrase was appropriated from a private letter addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association written by Thomas Jefferson while he was President—a quarter of a century after the Founding. It read in part:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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 & 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.3
What did Jefferson mean by “a wall of separation between church and state”? Did he mean that we must keep God and the Bible out of public life? Or did he mean that we must keep government from interfering with the public practice of Christianity?
In their efforts to restrain the federal government from overstepping its boundaries and wielding illicit power, the Founders appended the Bill of Rights. Their stated intention was to further insure that the Federal government did not interfere with the foundational rights given by God to each citizen. The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” A careful consideration of the discussions4 that transpired among the Founders in their effort to achieve the proper wording yields two conclusions: (1) by “establishment of religion” they meant that no one Protestant denomination was to be elevated above the other sects and established as the state religion, and (2) by “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” they meant that the federal government was not to interfere with the free and public practice of the Christian religion. Several historical facts verify these conclusions.
For example, the Founder who has gone down in history as the “Father of the Bill of Rights” was George Mason, himself a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. His proposed wording of the First Amendment enables us to grasp the historical context in which the Founders were attempting to frame the amendment’s intention: “All men have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that no particular sect or society of Christians ought to be favored or established by law in preference to others.”5
The “wall” to which Jefferson referred was the fact that no power was given by the Constitution to Congress to establish a national church and to compel by law the worship rituals of any particular denomination. His own practices demonstrate that the courts have misapplied Jefferson’s phrase:
Two days after Jefferson wrote his “wall of separation” metaphor he attended church services held in the House of Representatives where the Speaker’s podium was used as the pulpit. This was no isolated event either as he continuously attended church services held on government property during his two terms as President. President Madison also attended church services in the House on Sundays. Even the Treasury building was used as a church on Sundays where John Quincy Adams was known to attend.6
In his Second Inaugural Address, Jefferson explained the role of the Constitution concerning religious matters:
In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state or church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.7
Do his remarks mean that Jefferson thought all references to God and Bible religion should be avoided by the government and politicians? Surely not since in the same address, he declared:
I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.8
The First Amendment does not ban Congress from recognizing or participating in religious practices. It only prohibits Congress from creating by law a religious establishment (state church) and requiring adherence to it. Religious symbols in schools and on public property do not violate the First Amendment. They do not officially establish a state church, much less coerce a citizen to join it. To repeat: The First Amendment prevents government from establishing a religion and declaring by law that it is the only religion that can be practiced. It has nothing to do with acknowledging religion and its teachings—particular Christianity.
This realization naturally raises a question: If you allow the Bible and allusions to Christianity in schools and public life (as was historically the case prior to the 1960s), won’t you also need to include Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, as well as Atheism? And what about the atheists? The Founders’ view was that the general doctrines of the Christian religion are the basis of the American Republic—our culture and way of life. Hence, Christianity must remain the foundation of our society or the freedom we have achieved will dissolve. Other religions can be tolerated. But if the majority of our population abandons Christianity, and other religions are allowed to increase their presence and role in American life, America will gradually become like the other nations of the world.
Indeed, if one wishes to see what America would look like if Islam exerts its influence over the nation, look at any Islamic nation on Earth. The same goes for Buddhism, Hinduism, and Atheism (as well as Socialism). Just examine all countries on the planet where those ideologies dominate. It would be irrational and nonsensical to suppose that America could continue its unprecedented freedom, prosperity, and moral structure if any of those ideologies were permitted to prevail.9
The truth is that the Founders’ idea of religious freedom was actually quite simple and sensible—not at all like the “political correctness” of our day. The facts show that most of the Founders, with few exceptions, believed that the Christian worldview and Christian principles must be the foundation of the Republic. For example, during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress issued 15 proclamations to all Americans from 1775 to 1783. Those proclamations are filled with biblical references—including references to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.10 Their view of religious freedom and tolerance simply meant that they did not want anyone persecuted or mistreated by the government due to their religious beliefs. Those who practiced no religion or a non-Christian religion could come to America and not be persecuted. Why? For the simple reason that most of the Founders and most Americans lived by Christian principles that forbid persecuting one’s fellowman (Matthew 5:38-47; Luke 6:27-36). They understood Jesus’ teaching to treat others the way they themselves wished to be treated (Matthew 7:12).
You see, the Founders were mostly British citizens who had felt the sting of persecution in their disagreement with the state religion (the Church of England). They were well familiar with their mother country’s long history of religious oppression and bloodshed, depending on whether a Catholic or a Protestant king or queen was on the throne. The Founders’ “forefathers” were the pilgrims who fled England specifically on account of religious persecution. So the Founders and Framers envisioned no religious coercion in the new Republic. They believed that everyone ought to be able to decide for themselves what to believe about religion.
This view is in complete harmony with the nature of God Himself. God created humans to be freewill agents who make their own decisions with regard to their eternal destiny. God does not want Christians to force their beliefs on others (unlike Islam and the God of the Quran). However, the Founders had two concerns about tolerating false religions. They did not approve (1) any religious belief that urged a person to harm others, or (2) any religious belief that included an immoral or illegal practice (by Christian standards). So, for instance, if your religion allows you to have multiple wives, that part of your religion would not be tolerated since, by Christian standards, polygamy is sinful. Or if your religion urged you to kill Christians, your religious belief would not be allowed.11 Apart from these two exceptions, the Founders believed that people ought to be left free to practice their religion without governmental interference.
However, that does not mean that the Founders wanted all religions to be given equal treatment in the public sector. As Father of American Jurisprudence Joseph Story said concerning the attitude of Americans regarding the priority of the Christian religion: “An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.”12 To the Founders, permitting non-Christian peoples to live in our country without persecution did not mean that they “celebrated diversity” or desired the spread of what they considered to be false religion. Rather, doing so reflected their desire that all peoples be allowed to pursue happiness without governmental interference.
To summarize, the Founding Fathers believed America’s moral and religious foundation must be the Christian religion in order for the nation to endure.13 The Father of American Geography, Jedidiah Morse, provides a fitting conclusion to this brief analysis when he cogently articulated the rationale of the Founders and most early Americans:
The foundations which support the interest of Christianity, are also necessary to support a free and equal government like our own. In all those countries where there is little or no religion, or a very gross and corrupt one, as in Mahometan and Pagan countries, there you will find, with scarcely a single exception, arbitrary and tyrannical governments, gross ignorance and wickedness, and deplorable wretchedness among the people. To the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom, and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoy. In proportion as the genuine effects of Christianity are diminished in any nation, either through unbelief, or the corruption of its doctrines, or the neglect of its institutions; in the same proportion will the people of that nation recede from the blessings of genuine freedom, and approximate the miseries of complete despotism.14
1 See, for example, Dave Miller (2008), The Silencing of God (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press); Dave Miller (2009), Christ and the Continental Congress (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
3 Thomas Jefferson (1802), “
5 Kate Rowland (1892), The Life of George Mason (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons), 1:244.
9 This fact is precisely why the Founders were concerned about unrestrained immigration and its potential to alter the moral and religious fabric of the Republic. See Dave Miller (2017), God & Government (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press), pp. 204ff.
10 Dave Miller (2009), Christ and the Continental Congress (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).
11 For a discussion of whether the Founders agreed with the pluralistic and “politically correct” mentality of our day that encourages immigrants who do not share Christian values to come to America, see Dave Miller (2013), “Were the Founding Fathers ‘Tolerant’ of Islam? (Parts 1&2),” Reason & Revelation, 33[3/4]:26-28,32-35,38-40,45-47, March/April. Also, Miller, (2017), pp. 204ff.
12 Joseph Story (1833), Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (Boston, MA: Hilliard, Gray, & Co.), Vol. III, Ch. 44, Paragraphs 1865-1868, emp. added.
13 For more discussion of this subject, see the DVDs America’s Most Pressing Concern and Separation of Church & State? available from Apologetics Press.