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What Does Separation of Church and State Really Mean?

The much-bandied about phrase “separation of church and state” means different things to different people. To those from the secular humanist persuasion, it means that the state can make no public acknowledgement of religion, have no religious displays, recognize no tax exemptions for churches, and goes so far to regulate even religious expressions of private individuals in the public arena out of line. One also hears that any attempt by others to “moralize” or use any religious values to argue for a policy should be silenced.

On the other hand, there are those who believe the matter is simply that the government should not establish an official state church, or that a church should not be anointing officials in the government. Other than that, people should believe and practice how they see fit. Both sides couch their arguments on constitutional theories, some involving Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” letter.

To consider this issue, it is important to look at the historical situation of the framers and what they intended. To recap, they were declaring independence from the King of England. There is one important title for the monarch of England that is relevant to this issue, “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”. Not only was the Church of England the official state religion (and still is), but the King himself was the head of that Church. This ensured that his political reach not only extended in the public realm, but from the pulpit. The hierarchy of the church was subservient to the king. This led to abuses in both directions, those by the church and those by the government.

The founders did not declare independence from England because they wanted to set up a secular state. They declared independence because of a long train of abuses and usurpations of government power against its people. They were concerned about matters of tyranny, not theology. The Boston Tea Party was about taxes (and thus enshrined in American tradition the fine art of bitching about taxes), not about Baptists throwing Presbyterian’s Bibles into the Atlantic. The Declaration itself made liberal use of religion in general, as did the Founders in their public statements. Even in Jefferson’s Wall letter, he expresses religious sentiment and asks for prayers. It’s obviously clear; it isn’t religious expression they are worried about.

The choice of phrase is important, “separation of church and state”. Jefferson doesn’t say separation of religion and state. He is talking about institutionalseparation. Ireland’s official church is the Roman Catholic Church, as is Poland’s. In England, it’s the Church of England. These aren’t religions in general but specific religious institutions. No nation has “Christianity” as the official state religion for a very good reason. The reason is that there’s about 50,000-some odd flavors that run the gamut from the Mormons to the Unitarians. Some Christians say Jesus established a hierarchical church, others say he was a social activist, still others say he was an anarchist. Saying Christianity is the official state religion would border on effective meaninglessness. It wasn’t the ideas that the Founders were afraid of which is why they were perfectly free praying together and expressing religious sentiment in public documents and speeches. Institutional corruption and tyranny were their concerns.

The results of institutional mingling of churches and governments are quite clear in history and it hasn’t been beneficial for the state or the church. However, this is a far cry from divining an intent that projects the idea that “religion is all that’s wrong with the world” upon the Founders. There was a camp among the Founders who believed that a free society required a religious people and yet still continued to allow free association between the various churches.

However, the crowd pushing separation most vigorously also is the crowd that’s trying to regulate certain religious beliefs out of existence. Pharmacists aren’t allowed to express their religious sentiments about abortion and retain their jobs. The argument is that they shouldn’t take the job if they don’t follow a pre-defined ethical construct approved by the government. Catholic hospitals are consistently fighting attempts to force them to provide abortions despite their clear religious teaching. Catholic Charities in California are required to recognize “gay marriage” despite their own beliefs. Schoolchildren (a.k.a. individual citizens not to be confused with government officials) are told that they aren’t allowed to pray or have Bible studies on school property. In one case, school children were threatened with federal prison if they dared utter a prayer on their own volition during a graduation ceremony. The IRS has investigated churches for preaching against abortion. In short, the wall of separation is growing to enforce a certain religious orthodoxy and not protect the free expression of religion that was also mentioned in the First Amendment.

The irony of setting up such a system where beliefs are regulated to some level of appropriate orthodoxy on issues such as abortion is that the sword cuts both ways, depending on the whims of government. When right-wing churches complained about IRS harassment, the left-wing told them to stop talking about abortion instead. However, when an anti-war sermon brought the IRS, the left-wing cried foul. The problem with state regulation of religion is that its regulation will serve its own interests, usually on sale to the highest bidder. The Founders were rightly concerned about this abuse, which is why in the same breath of saying the State should establish no official religion; it should also in no way restrict reasonable expressions of religion.

Contrary to the opinion of some, the First Amendment doesn’t require regulating religion into hiding; it requires that church and state remain institutionally separate. The mere expression of the word “God” in a speech does not a theocracy make.

Written by Part-Time Pundit.
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About John Bambenek

John Bambenek is a political activist and computer security expert. He has his own company Bambenek Consulting in Champaign, IL that specializes in digital forensics and computer security investigations.
  • Dave Nalle

    So no argument no matter how well supported will persuade you, gonzo? Then what’s the point of even bothering to try to talk to you? You apparently have a completely closed mind.

    Dave

  • gonzo marx

    again..comment #52 seesm to miss the Point

    my Mind is not closed, or even inflexible about most Issues

    however, i will not call a “duck” a “chicken”…nor a “use of force” a “declaration of war”…nor an “editorialist” a “reporter”…no matter who may assert it is so

    definitions are crucial, and very Important to me

    those that attempt to redefine things to suit their needs and Agenda have difficulties with the likes of me…

    and no one needs to “bother”, i comment to gather my own Thoughts, learn some things and in the hope i can get even one person to think or grin due to my crazed typings

    but it’s still a “duck”

    Excelsior!

  • Dave Nalle

    But gonzo, you admitted in #149 that you’re basically not listening or interested in listening no matter how valid the argument or how strong the evidence. Self reliance is a virtue, but nothing is virtuous when taken to extremes.

    Dave

  • Alice

    gonzo, you’re not listening no matter how valid the argument or how strong the evidence.

    Just because it walks, quacks, and looks like a duck, the evidence is inconclusive.

    Listen to Elmer Fudd.

  • simp-boy 88

    So far, gonzo is my hero. I’ve been reading and
    I love arguments. I say that our county was founded by xtremely religious people. So having a separation was (or should’ve been) a major problem seeing as most pilgrams wanted freedom of religion. Religous leaders often equals religious government. Am I right?

  • Sully

    You are incorrect on a point of fact. The Catholic Church is not, nor has it ever been the official church of the Republic of Ireland. The 1922 Constitution that established the Free State made no mention of the church. The 1937 Constitution acknowledged the Church’s “special position” as the church of the majority of the population, however it also recognized several Protestant denominations and Juadaism. The Church was removed from its “special position” in the 5th Amendment of the 1972 Constitution and freedom of religion was fully ensconced in the political fabric.

    That being said, despite the lack of official standing, the Church is VERY influential through its civic organizations at influencing the nature and passage of legislation to ensure a pro-catholic and dogmatically compliant government environment.

  • Joel

    This is obviously an old post, but I wished to chime in. As the author stated, baby America wanted to sever itself from the historical tyranny of heads of state and church. I think it fair to consider that whilst the founding fathers may have had their religious views, they realized a government run by one part government of the people and another part government of the morals was too excessive.

    And that is what it boils down to, really. Government regulates society while church regulates individuals. To pair them both is a political atomic bomb that has never gone too well in the past. Spanish Inquisition, Crusades, Jihad….

    Government should only seek to maintain standards of society based on actions that could cause harm. Anything more, especially in the realm of the subjective topic of morality, is an abuse of power. Period.

  • jadams

    touché Joel… touché.

    On a larger note, I too found the sum enjoyingly, insightful, from the entirety of raillery, net argument, view, cause & spin. Well done!

  • Thomas Zachary Seward

    I read your post and feel sad. Yours is a position of hate and digging heels into the ground so deep that you don’t care what is fact and what isn’t. I’ll rebut, but please read what I say before you reply, if you reply. My argument is not aggressive, but informational.

    “To those from the secular humanist persuasion, it means that the state can make no public acknowledgement of religion.”
    Actually, the state can acknowledge the existence of religion all they want. They just can’t support one over the other.

    “Have no religious displays”
    Actually, they /CAN/ have religious displays if they are open to having any and all willing religions displaying.

    “recognize no tax exemptions for churches”
    Actually, if the church had a homeless shelter or anything of merit to be legally considered ‘charity’, the actively protesting secular humanists would absolutely be willing to make an exception. As it stands, churches are raking in the dough with nothing coming back to the feds.

    “and goes so far to regulate even religious expressions of private individuals in the public arena out of line.”
    I don’t know where you heard this, but secular humanism isn’t an organization. It’s an ideology. Public expression is fine as long as it doesn’t go into hate speech. I think even you’d agree that hate speech is wrong.

    “One also hears that any attempt by others to ‘moralize’ or use any religious values to argue for a policy should be silenced.”
    That’s because it’s the government or an entity of the government supporting one religion over another.

    “On the other hand, there are those who believe the matter is simply that the government should not establish an official state church”
    This is another point with which secular humanists agree.

    “or that a church should not be anointing officials in the government.”
    Well that’d make the USA an oligarchy, wouldn’t it?

    “Other than that, people should believe and practice how they see fit.”
    Absolutely. Just because I am a humanist doesn’t mean I think everyone should blindly follow suit.

    “Both sides couch their arguments on constitutional theories, some involving Thomas Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation’ letter.”
    Thomas Jefferson’s letter, no matter how persuasive to his constituents, was not a legal bill or law. Just because he believed that the federal government and the churches should be separated in all matters does not mean he was right in these beliefs. There are many people (the congress of 1878 for instance) who believe this document is a translation of the terms within the first amendment. Actually, there was a man named Roger Williams who fled Massachusetts to form Rhode Island to form a “hedge of or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world” to keep the government out of his church. How’s that for turning the argument against the humanists?

    “To consider this issue, it is important to look at the historical situation of the framers and what they intended.”
    Let’s do this, but take out any opinions from the author and add facts that were conveniently removed.

    “To recap, they [the whole of the colonies] were declaring independence from the King of England. There is *an* important title for the monarch of England that is relevant to this issue, ‘Supreme Governor of the Church of England’. *The Church of England is the national religion of England.* This ensured that his political reach *was absolute.* This led *to absolute monarchical power.*

    The founders wanted to set up a secular state[1][3]. They declared independence because of a long train of abuses and usurpations *which isn’t actually true. Although a constitutional monarchy, England’s king had absolute sway over what passed into law. Call it royal influence.* of government power against its people. They were concerned about matters of tyranny, not theology. The Boston Tea Party was about taxes. The Declaration itself made liberal use of religion[2] in general, as did the Founders in their public statements. Even in Jefferson’s Wall letter, he expresses religious sentiment and asks for prayers[1][3].

    The choice of phrase is important, “separation of church and state”. Jefferson doesn’t say separation of religion and state.-(that’s why the religious are allowed to serve in the government) *sadly, Jefferson never stated anything about institutional separation, or there would be no debate to have.* It wasn’t the ideas *of religion* that the Founders were afraid of which is why they were perfectly free praying together and expressing religious sentiment in public documents and speeches[1][3].

    The results of institutional mingling of churches and governments are quite clear in history and it hasn’t been beneficial for the state or the church. However, this is a far cry from divining an intent that projects the idea that ‘religion is all that’s wrong with the world’ upon the Founders[1][3].
    There was a camp among the Founders who believed that a free society required a religious people and yet still continued to allow free association between the various churches *which has nothing to do with religious influence on the government through politicians or religious institutions*.

    However, the crowd pushing separation most vigorously also is the crowd that’s trying to regulate certain religious beliefs out of existence.(This last sentence is completely untrue and it’s insulting to generalize a whole ideology as hateful and anti-freedom.) Pharmacists aren’t allowed to express their religious sentiments about abortion and retain their jobs. (They absolutely are as long as hate-speech/slander and threats are not involved in the expression of such sentiments.) The argument is that they shouldn’t take the job if they don’t follow a pre-defined ethical construct approved by the government. Catholic hospitals are consistently fighting attempts to force them to provide abortions despite their clear religious teaching. (This is only in a Catholic monopolized area. Again, the generalizations.) Catholic Charities in California are required to recognize ‘gay marriage’ despite their own beliefs. (this is a state issue, and since the state of California recognizes same-sex partnerships, the institutions performing the ceremony and writing up paperwork are legally bound to their own contractual obligations. Additionally, the Pope has recently spoken for same-sex marriage) Schoolchildren (a.k.a. individual citizens not to be confused with government officials) are told that they aren’t allowed to pray or have Bible studies on school property *AKA state and federal property*. In one case, school children *legally adults* were threatened with federal prison if they *prayed during a state funded public school activity*. The IRS has investigated churches for preaching against abortion*, posted full page ads against Clinton as a presidential candidate, and preached a sermon entitled ‘if Jesus were to debate Kerry and Bush,’ something that is illegal. Support of any candidate negates tax-exempt status*. In short, the wall of separation is growing to enforce *the law*.

    When right-wing churches complained about IRS harassment, the left-wing told them to stop talking about abortion instead *which is the reason for IRS scrutiny. Speaking on issues of law is how tax exemption is revoked*. However, when an anti-war sermon brought the IRS, the left-wing cried foul, *which is ignorant. The law is the law.* The problem with state regulation of *state-endorsed religion* is that its regulation will serve its own interests, usually on sale to the highest bidder. *Oh, how true. The government is full of inept, greedy politicians.* The Founders were rightly concerned about this abuse, which is why in the same breath of saying the State should establish no official religion; it should also in no way restrict reasonable expressions of religion. *By reasonable expression, I hope you mean stopping just short of writing bills and proposing laws based deeply in religious views.*

    The First Amendment doesn’t require regulating religion into hiding; it requires that church and state remain separate. The mere expression of the word “God” in a speech does not a theocracy make. *By theocracy, you mean oligarchy.*”

    [1] http://www.ecis.com/~alizard/founding-fathers-xtianity.html

    [2] http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html

    [3] http://www.barefootsworld.net/founding.html

    My rebuttal is within the confines of your article. While I agree that the separation of church and state does not allow for sway, your points about secular humanism are so wrong it’s not funny. Yes, there are some hypocrites out there who want a state non-church endorsement, but most of us realize that is not what the first amendment states. Most of the founding fathers were anti-religion, but they supported religious freedom, so long as it didn’t influence the government in any way. The links (1 & 3) I have presented you are quotes from both letters and speeches by the founding fathers on why they were against religion. The link (2) is actually a transcript of the Constitution of the United States, and there is only one mention of “Lord” and that is when they are stating the signing date. That’s tradition. No mention of the words god, Jesus, messiah, holy, or any other religious term except twice. The word “religion” in the first amendment and the word “religious” in the 6th article saying there will be no religious test required to qualify for office. THAT law has been broken in 8 states’ constitutions. Since Texas’ constitutional rights are “higher” than most others’, it doesn’t actually count, but it is a state.

    Arkansas (Article 19 Section 1)
    Maryland (Article 37)
    Mississippi (Article 14, Section 265)
    North Carolina (Article 6 Section 8)
    Pennsylvania (Article 1 Section 4)
    South Carolina (Article 17 Section 4)
    Tennessee (Article 9 Section 2)
    Texas (Article 1 Section 4)

    I look forward to your reply.