Lawrence Free State High School
The Significance of Separation of Church and State in our Government
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and State.” (Jefferson 1)
When Thomas Jefferson penned those words in his 1801 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson surely knew that he was touching on a turbulent issue in early American politics. In a time when ecumenical organizations were the government’s greatest benefactors, and swearing one’s allegiance to their nation on a Christian Bible was certainly less than ceremonial, Church and State both swam together in muddy waters. What Jefferson may not have predicted, however, was that in this letter he coined a phrase that would resurface dozens upon dozens of times in future court cases, federal legislature, and foreign policies throughout the next two hundred years: “a wall of separation.”
The American government’s near-total separation of Church and State seems standard and totally justifiable at this point in history. This facet of basic defenses against the government, listed in the Bill of Rights, is clearly defined by the permutation of two clauses: the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. The combination of these two clauses seems to have successfully defined the line between religious and government institutions – although it has been painstakingly tested time and time again in Federal Court. In Supreme Court cases such as McCollum v. Board of Education and Reynolds v. United States, the highest court in the land not only upheld the standards set forth in the First Amendment, but also extended working definitions of this wall of separation that they believed America’s founding fathers envisioned. When those early leaders established that vision, however, it was not easily agreed upon.
When the Anti-Federalists debated many aspects of America’s Federal Government that are now considered virtually set in stone, they were not merely fighting against the ideals of a strong, centralized government, but fighting for the ideals of strong, independent citizens. Many of America’s founding fathers were all-too familiar with the stigma and oppression associated with a religious state. For hundreds of years, the powers of the “Old World” had been caught in constant power struggles and wars that were fought in the name of holy salvation; kings and their people ruled and died in the name of religion. Thomas Jefferson expressed that familiarity well: “In the middle ages of Christianity, opposition to the State opinions were hushed. The consequence was, Christianity became loaded with all the Romish follies. Nothing but free argument, raillery and even ridicule will preserve the purity of religion.” (Jefferson 256) Not only did America’s founding fathers reject the idea of kings ruling their people, but they also rejected the idea of religion ruling their people.
As previously stated, early American leaders made these rejections of a religious state clear in the Bill of Rights. And although the role of religion in government has still been tested numerous times in Congress, America’s leaders appear to have stayed true to the religious freedom and indifference that the United States boasts so proudly. In an 1843 correspondence, President John Tyler attempted to explain that indifference: “The United States has adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent - that of total separation of Church and State…The offices of the government are open alike to all. No titles are levied to support an established hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith.” (Tyler 1)
In short, by law no one in America can be judged by his or her religious affiliations, nor can they attempt to politicize those beliefs. And although, initially, it was not widely accepted throughout the world, Tyler’s “noble experiment” can now be considered a success. At this point in history, a wall of separation has, at long last, been adopted in varying degrees by many nations. This policy seems to have gone hand-in-hand with Western liberal democracy, however even states that have maintained a constitutional recognition of an official state religion have taken baby steps toward a wall of separation between Church and State in recent years.
If nothing else, this influence towards a universal wall of separation between Church and State has been one of America’s greatest contributions in global politics. It is ignorant to say that law is completely blind to all aspects of religion, because many positive aspects of religion have influenced American politics and made it the power that it is today. Yet it is only by forcing a separation between Church and State that people can govern themselves in a righteous and noble manner. Reverting once more to the works of Thomas Jefferson, it is clear that even as religion and matters of state continue to contest public policy, the will of the people will ultimately surface as the victor. “Those with whom we act, entertaining different views, have the power and the right of carrying them into practice. Truth advances, and error recedes step by step only; and to do to our fellow men the most good in our power, we must lead where we can, follow where we cannot, and still go with them, watching always the favorable moment for helping them to another step.” (Jefferson 200)
Jefferson, Thomas. "Establishing the University of Virginia." Letter to Thomas Cooper. 7 Oct. 1814. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. 7. New York: Andrew Adgate Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, 1905. 200.
Jefferson, Thomas. "Letter to the Danbury Baptists." Letter to Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut. 1 Jan. 1802. June 1998. Library of Congress. 5 Apr. 2009.
Jefferson, Thomas. The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes. 1st ed. Vol. 2. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1904. 256.
Tyler, John. "RELIGIOUS FREEDOM." Letter to Joseph Simpson. 10 July 1843. William and Mary College Quarterly Historical Magazine. 1st ed. Vol. 13. 1-3.
Created: May 7, 2009; Revised: September 2, 2014