William Colin Busby
Baldwin High School
The Significance of Separation of Church and State in our Government -
Retaining the Foundation of Freedom
“Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?” Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Conner
America was conceived in the idea of freedom. One of the most important and definitive of America’s freedoms is that of religion. Clearly established by the founding fathers, freedom of religion means a separation of church and state. Separation of church and state has proved essential in America’s rise as the champion of liberty, benefiting both the government and its peoples. Unfortunately, this freedom of religion is increasingly infringed upon in modern times, and if Americans remain unaware of its importance, America may lose one of its indispensable freedoms.
The American colonies were primarily a refuge from religious persecution in Europe. This persecution led the founding fathers to create a country protected from religious tyranny. In the Constitution, America’s supreme law, there is no reference to a god or gods. It is quite clear that the government is set upon logic and reason, not religion. This secular foundation is verified in the Treaty of Tripoli, ratified by the Senate in 1797, “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion...” (TheocracyWatch.org). To further clarify the separation of church and state, it was specified in the first amendment (and later applied to all levels of government by the 14th Amendment) "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." This is not to say that the founding fathers were anti-religious: it can be shown that each had religious beliefs and more importantly, a diversity of religious beliefs. Often confusing the fathers’ intent is the Declaration of Independence, which mentions “the Creator.” However the Declaration is not a legal document and has no place or influence on American law. It is the Constitution that is the law, debated and ratified by a congress that consisted of evangelical Christians and Enlightenment rationalists (Theocracywatch.org).
The popular phrase “separation of church and state” that has come to represent the intent expressed in the Constitution can be misleading. First, there is not one ‘church’. In fact, not only is the phrase referring to churches, it more accurately means all religious organizations. Second, there is not only one ‘state’. In our nation there are many levels of interacting government, a concept known as federalism. A clearer phrase to represent the Constitutional intent is “separation of religious and civil authority” (Cline). Understanding that these are two distinct and independent spheres of authority lets American government and its people’s religions coexist harmoniously and offers additional freedom to the people (Cline).
Having religion detached from government does not detach people from religion. Witness Europe, where organized religions have been suffering a strong decline in numbers. Meanwhile contrarily, religion in America is as robust as ever. One reason for this is that when state and religion are combined, the natural distrust and antagonism a citizen feels for their government is then carried over to the state religion. Furthermore, when a state enforces specific religious practices upon its population, hostility develops. In Israel, Orthodox Judaism is mandated, leaving the secular Jews with a strong sense that their freedoms have been violated. This has generated enmity from secular Jews towards both Orthodox Judaism and their Israeli government (Marcus). Accordingly, there is currently more anti-Orthodox Judaism sentiment in Israel than in any other place in the world. Christian Nationalists wanting state support for their religion fail to realize the negative effect it will likely have on their religion. In fact, it is quite possible that evangelical Christianity wouldn’t be so successful today if not for its continued failure at getting governmental support (Cline).
A constructive separation cannot be one-sided; not only is it good for religion, it is also beneficial to the state. When considering government-endorsed religion in America, one assumes the religion would be a form of Christianity. Approximately a quarter of American citizens are non-Christians, in other words, a Christian state religion would almost immediately alienate 25% of the population. This is a scary thought when considering the violence and unrest that state religions invoke in citizens of a different religion in other countries around the world. To pick just one recent example, the Muslim-Christian conflict in Indonesia has resulted in thousands of deaths and the spawning of terrorism groups (Silverman). Moreover, it is estimated that by 2042 non-Christians (defined as non-Christian religions, atheists and agnostics) will outnumber Christians in the U.S. Even in the present, the Christian segment of America is so religiously diverse that even enforcing basic principals of Christianity into the government would surely upset many. Only half of Americans identify themselves as Protestants, historically the most common branch of Christianity in the U.S (ReligiousTolerance.org).
America’s government must retain its separation of church and state if it is to prosper in today’s modern age. A secular government represents all citizens equally without getting caught up in the inherent problems organized religions face, such as which religion’s god is the true god. Founded on reason, the separation of church and state benefits the government without hurting religion and alienating its peoples. In defense of pluralism and a successful country, both in religion and government, it is imperative that we preserve our religious liberty in America.
Cline, Austin. “In God We Trust?.” About.com. About.com, 2009.
Foley, John. The Jeffersonian Encyclopedia. Funk & Wagnalls, 1900.
Marcus, Jonathan. “Secularism vs. Orthodox Judaism.” BBC 22 April 1998. 1 April 2009.
“Religious identification in the U.S.: How American adults view themselves.” ReligiousTolerance.org. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, 2001. 29 March 2009.
“Separation of Church and State: A First Amendment Primer.” ADL.org. Anti-Defamation League, 1999.
“Separation of Church and State.” TheocracyWatch.org. 29 March 2009.
Silverman, Daniel. “Indonesia and its Muslim v. Christian Conflict.” UFL.edu. Silverman, 2003.
“What are the benefits of Separation of Church and State?.” WikiAnswers.com. Answers Corporation, 2009.
Created: May 7, 2009; Revised: September 2, 2014