Friday, November 9, 2012

On separation of Church and State...


Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

What is the correct definition of Separation of Church & State?

God bless you & thank you!
Pat Reotik

Dear Pat,

It is interesting to note that this phrase doesn’t appear in the constitution. It is a phrase taken from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist church, which I will quote in its entirety

To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.

   The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
    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.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

Th Jefferson
Jan. 1. 1802.

So, there you have it. The first amendment of our national constitution states that the government shall “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”  The Constitution does not mandate a separation church and state. Thomas Jefferson does. The constitution forbids the restriction of the free exercise of religion. Now for a little history...

The colonists were in revolt against a country whose king was both head of state and head of the national church. To this day no Catholic may be king of England.  The Church of England had recently fought a bloody civil war to keep a Catholic off the throne of England, reasoning that England was a Protestant country. The Anglican Church, a hybrid of Catholic ritual and Protestant theology was the ESTABLISHED religion of England. The colonies weren’t opposed to established religion as such, just to the established religion of the King of England. 

The American colonies had their own established religions. The thirteen American colonies all had some form of state-supported religion. There were tax benefits for church and clergy and religious membership in Protestant churches was necessary for voting and for being elected to the state legislatures. These were not finally removed from state constitutions until the second half of the nineteenth century. Allow me to quote the constitution of the great state of New Hampshire as it stood until 1877:

 “ No person shall be capable of being elected a senator who is not of the Protestant religion... Every member of the house of representatives... shall be of the Protestant religion...”

 The US constitution forbad the establishment of a national religion, but the states continued to establish particular religions as official state religions. Well into the twentieth century a kind of generic Protestantism was taught in the public, (or government) schools. We Catholics established our own school system to protect our children from the “protestantization” that was thought necessary to good American citizenship.

So to answer your question, the American understanding of the separation of church and state is that the US federal government may not establish a national religion and may not impede the free exercise of religion, provided my religion does not hurt another by, for instance, human sacrifice. I could stop here, but of course, will not.

There is, contrary to the constitution, a new attempt to establish a national religion. That religion is the logical outgrowth of the Protestantism which was the religion of the individual states until only recently. The founding principle of Protestantism is not as most people presume, salvation by grace through faith, and a belief in Bible alone. It is the supremacy of the individual. 

Martin Luther overthrew the papacy, and thought he would in effect be the temporary pope of a reformed Christianity. When people began to break images, deface churches and kill the aristocracy  during Luther’s brief exile in the Wartburg castle, Luther was furious. This was, after all, his revolution. He would dictate its terms. But poor Martin had let the genie out of the bottle, and it was Luther’s successor, John Calvin, who threw away the cork when he declared that the individual inspired by the Holy Spirit was sufficient for the interpretation of Scripture and that the Church was no more than the local congregation. 

These were the founding principles of the Untied States. No pope, no bishop, no king, no priest. God alone as I understand him. Every man his own pope! Let me coin a word. I shall call this American religion “autopapism.” America is the first and the greatest autopapist country, leading the world into a kind of sacred anarchy, in which people are free to be spiritual as they define it.  Sounds good, doesn’t it? 

I have nothing against autopapism, though I think it is a silly religion that will ultimately destroy the country, but that’s just my opinion, which the constitution says I am free to have. The problem is the increasing establishment of autopapism as the national religion. An established religion means $$MONEY$$, government $$MONEY$$.  Where does the government get its $$MONEY$$? Out of your pocket and mine. That means if autopapism is the established religion, it is I, a turgid Roman Catholic who believes that  the Bavarian in Rome can and should influence my thoughts and conduct, must pay for your religion. That is the nature of established religion. It takes $$MONEY$$ from the government which in turn takes its $$MONEY$$ from me. This has two ramifications. (Ramification; great word, no?)

The first ramification of the establishment of national autopapism is this: I am forced to pay for the dictates of your conscience which means I must provide you with the sacraments of autopapism, such as birth control, abortion, spousal benefits for whatever or whomever you want to marry, your sex change operation if you are so inspired by your own particular deity. I must pay for insurance for any disease that your particular religion requires you to contract. I am not asking you to pay for my candles and altar wine, nor my chanting and stained glass windows. Why should I pay for the autopapist sacraments of human sacrifice and physical mutilation that masquerade as medical necessities to which all should have access? 

The second ramification of the establishment of national autopapism this: Heaven forfend that a penny of government $$MONEY$$ go to pay for Catholic schools, but I must pay for the government (most people call them public) schools in which people are taught the only commandment of autopapism, that the only thing which cannot be tolerated is intolerance (which non-autopapists practice by definition. Non-autopapists claim that some people may not go to heaven because they do hideous things to themselves and others. The autopapist church teaches that everyone has a right to everything and that includes heaven. How dare the nasty Bavarian in Rome even think that somebody may be denied the vision of God!!! And God had better watch out, too. God, if she exists, has no right to deny me what I want or condemn me. It is a free country after all!)

There is a kind of clergy for the autopapist church and a kind of Vatican. The National Education Association claims to represent government school teachers in this country. It has a budget of about $350 Million garnered from the dues of its members. The Catholic, old fashioned Vatican has a budget of a little less ($326.4 Million in 2011). However, the dues paying members of the NEA are government employees, and the national religion of tolerance is supervised by a wing of the government, the United States Department of Education, a Cabinet-level department of the United States government. We, the purveyors of the old time religion, are not, at least in America, government employees and don’t thus far have a seat on the president’s cabinet. So you see, the old Protestantism which was the established religion of “the several states” and controlled the state schools has been replaced by its logical descendant, autopapism which still controls the schools and whose liturgy is celebrated on all the morning TV talk shows that masquerade as news. The new religion enjoys the lofty vantage point of an established national religion with its chair in the white house cabinet room and you and I must pay for it through the nose.  I am all for the separation of church and state in the present America. I wish the autopapists agreed with me.

Yours ,
the Reverend Know-it-all.


  1. 1. Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of "We the people" (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day, the founders' avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    That the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, to some who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and, upon learning they were mistaken, reckon they’ve discovered a smoking gun solving a Constitutional mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to name one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation--in those very words--of the founders' intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that were the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

  2. 2. While the First Amendment undoubtedly was intended to preclude the government from establishing a national religion as you note, that was hardly the limit of its intended scope. The first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision (“no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed”) and ultimately chose the more broadly phrased prohibition now found in the Amendment. During his presidency, Madison vetoed two bills, neither of which would form a national religion or compel observance of any religion, on the ground that they were contrary to the establishment clause. While some in Congress expressed surprise that the Constitution prohibited Congress from incorporating a church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia or granting land to a church in the Mississippi Territory, Congress upheld both vetoes. Separation of church and state is hardly a new invention of modern courts. In keeping with the Amendment’s terms and legislative history and other evidence, the courts have wisely interpreted it to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were the Amendment interpreted merely to preclude government from enacting a statute formally establishing a state church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by government doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion–stopping just short of cutting a ribbon to open its new church.

    The Constitution, including particularly the First Amendment, embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

    1. Doug Indeap—you are mistaken. For one thing, Madison and Jefferson were outliers as far as the beliefs of the Founders, even among the IMPORTANT FOUNDERS. For another, the Constitution does not mention religion because it was understood to be a matter left to the states, not the national government. Ditto education. As you know, your views are but one side of the matter. Hutson provides a good overview of the other: Hutson, James H. Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. With a Foreword by Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale University). Washington: Library of Congress, 1998.

    2. Even granting the historical narrative here, all that it demonstrates is that the Framers envisioned a separation between the federal government and the various institutional religious organizations (which one might, inappropriately, call "churches").

      The Constitution, at least the original text and the Bill of Rights, embodies no principle whatsoever about what each of us should be free to do, except 1) be free from quartering soldiers in our homes, 2) be free from being attained, and 3) be free from being ruled by an hereditary oligarchy. Beyond that, the Constitution contemplates only a series of limitations on the scope of the Federal government. The idea of the Constitution as a pervasive guide to the minutiae of the everyday rights of all Americans is an innovation---and an unwelcome and unsettling one---of the 14th Amendment.

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